Holland, Grand Haven, Muskegon among small ports welcoming uptick in Great Lakes cruises

Many small ports along Michigan’s coastline are eager for the upcoming cruising season on the Great Lakes. 

Cruising officials are predicting another robust year, following a record-breaking 2023, and are welcoming Ponant's Le Champlain back to the Great Lakes as the industry continues to develop. 

Cruise the Great Lakes, an international partnership that promotes cruising on the Great Lakes, says vessels will make 600 port visits in 2024, bringing more than 20,000 passengers to experience cities on the American and Canadian sides of the Great Lakes. That’s roughly double the numbers a decade ago.

“As we look ahead to 2024, we remain committed to sustaining the vitality of our region’s cruising sector,” said Anna Tanski, tourism director of Cruise the Great Lakes. “In just a decade, the number of cruise passengers has more than doubled, and Great Lakes ports continue to thrive as hubs for visitors. We are focused on maintaining this momentum as we navigate the future.”

Bryan EslerPassengers board a trolley at Muskegon's port for excursions.
Michigan’s small-town ports include Muskegon, Mackinac Island, Sault Ste. Marie, Marquette, Houghton, Alpena and — new to the market — Bay City. Some towns are not expecting cruise ships this season; others, like Holland and Grand Haven, are part of shore excursions from ports – in this case, Muskegon. 

The reasons for interest in the Great Lakes as a cruise destination are many. Sailing back and forth between two countries is a big selling point. American travelers are curious about destinations closer to home. Many vacationers are seeking “experience” travel. 

“Cruising the Great Lakes has grown. There is an increasing number of ships that include Holland as a port destination. It’s good for everybody,” said Linda Hart, who is executive director of the Holland Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. 

Holland, about 45 miles away — an hour bus ride — from the port in Muskegon, expects more visitors this season as well. Cruise ship passengers are drawn to Holland because of its rich Dutch history, vibrant downtown, heated streets and sidewalks and it’s the home of the only authentic working Dutch windmill in the United States. The Holland excursions typically last a few hours, with time for passengers to have lunch downtown. Passengers from 15 ships are expected this summer.

“We recognize that we are not an active port — we used to be, but we try to stay active (in the industry) and be present in conversations,” Hart said, adding city, tourism and business officials strive to provide the best experience for passengers.

Cruise the Great Lakes Victory Cruise Lines plans to return to the Great Lakes in 2025.
Holland welcomed cruise ships from 2014 to 2016; the ships docked at a utility dock used for aggregate material distribution. The city has plans to create a new dock, but, in the meantime, welcomes excursions from Muskegon.

Cruise the Great Lakes anticipates the regional economic impact generated by cruising will surpass $200 million in 2024, driven by the upward trend in passenger numbers, port visits, shoreside spending, and the growing domestic and international appeal of Great Lakes cruises. The 2024 season represents a remarkable increase in the economic impact of nearly 50 percent compared to 2022.

Cruise lines operating on the Great Lakes in 2024 include Pearl Seas Cruises, Viking Cruises, St. Lawrence Cruise Lines, Ponant, Hapag-Lloyd, and Plantours Cruises. Victory Cruise Lines recently announced its return to the region in 2025 with its Victory 1 and Victory II vessels.

Cruises along the Great Lakes are far more expensive than Caribbean cruises, costing thousands of dollars. They generally lure an older demographic, mostly from the United States but also from parts of Europe, people in their 60s and above, who are often retired and well-traveled. They’re seeking more laid-back, enrichment vacations. The ships generally don’t offer pools, casinos or shopping. On-board activities generally include music, lectures, and cocktail hours. The focus is more about personal enrichment.

History and local culture are a part of the appeal. It’s not just the Victorian charm of car-less Mackinac Island or its late 18th-century fort or the impressive locks at Sault Ste. Marie. Each port has its own story. In Muskegon, travelers explore the city’s lumbering and maritime past with a visit to one of the city’s many museums. The city also boasts an impressive art museum.

In Sault Ste. Marie, passengers disembark to explore the border city’s downtown of shops, restaurants, historic homes and other amenities, as well as joining pre-planned tours of the region. They range from adventure excursions to lighthouse tours. The Soo Locks are the biggest attraction for most people, curious about how the busiest lock system in the world works. 

Houghton is among the Michigan ports not expecting any cruise ships this season, though there were visitors in 2022 and 2023. The Upper Peninsula city completed a new pier project in 2022, not with the intent of welcoming ships but to create an attractive waterfront space. 

City of HoughtonThe Ocean Navigator on a previous cruise to Houghton. “The Pier becoming Houghton’s ‘cruise ship dock’ was more serendipitous than anything,” said Eric Waara, Houghton’s city manager. “It worked out well being able to receive passengers right in the middle of our downtown.”

Passengers disembarked to visit historic resources, waterfalls, beaches and wilderness. 

“These Great Lakes cruises are not your Caribbean-type megaships where the ships have ziplines, Disney princesses, bottomless margaritas and disco lights,” he said. “They are for passengers who want a real, unscripted experience more on the lines of an expeditions as opposed to a party at sea.”

Waara is hopeful cruise ships will return to Houghton next summer.

"We are a great port," he said. "We're hopeful we’ll see more stops in the future! Aside from the passengers getting a taste of Houghton, there’s nothing like a really BIG boat parked on the waterfront to bring young and old out for some fun."
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