When New York-based small-ship operator Travel Dynamics International moves its newly acquired, 138-passenger Yorktown vessel onto the Great Lakes next summer, it will increase the current U.S. market capacity on the lakes by 13 times what it's been for the past five years. (Click on the image at right for a larger view of a map of the Yorktown's itineraries.)
"People come to the Great Lakes and realize what vast inland oceans they are," said Chris Conlin, owner of Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Conlin Travel and subsidiary Great Lakes Cruise Co., which has been operating charters on the Great Lakes since it revived the area's dormant cruise business in 1999.
In 1997, the German cruise line Hapag-Lloyd brought its 420-passenger ship Columbus to the Great Lakes, primarily for the German market.
Conlin, together with his father, formed the Great Lakes Cruise Co. in 1998 and in 1999 operated the first U.S. charter of the Columbus. The next three years, they chartered the Columbus and the 90-passenger French yacht Le Levant.
"Since then, we've had anywhere between one and seven ships that sail the Great Lakes," Conlin said.
Over the past five years, the Great Lakes Cruise Co. averaged about 125 passengers per year on the Columbus from the U.S. market, with the remainder sold to the German market. It also sold sailings on the 96-passenger Grand Mariner and 96-passenger Niagara Prince.
The Great Lakes Cruise Co. will continue to market and sell the Grand Mariner and Niagara Prince, but it is also now marketing and selling an additional 12 sailings next summer on the 138-passenger Yorktown.
Travel Dynamics International acquired the 138-passenger Yorktown, a former Cruise West ship most recently known as the Spirit of Yorktown, earlier this year. The ship is in Seattle receiving upgrades before it enters service in the spring.
According to Conlin, there are several reasons for the types and varieties of cruise ships that end up on the Great Lakes.
"First of all, only a certain size vessel can come into the Great Lakes," Conlin said, adding that the ships can't be more than 75 feet wide to pass through the series of eight locks that make up the Welland Canal, between Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.
"So, only smaller ships can do the Great Lakes, and smaller ships tend to move their itineraries around year to year," Conlin said. The Great Lakes season runs from late May to early October. The rest of the year, the ships reposition, with some wintering in Central America or the Caribbean, then work their way back up, Conlin said.
Conlin said Great Lakes cruise passengers typically are not first-time cruisers. On average, they have cruised about 10 times previously and tend to be interested in the Great Lakes for the itinerary, not the ships.
"This is more for soft adventure and enrichment," Conlin said.
And the passengers hail mostly from the Sun Belt states. "We don't get a lot of Midwesterners," Conlin said. "They take the Great Lakes for granted."
Itineraries range from an eight-day Voyage to the Great Lakes between Detroit and Chicago, to the 11-day Great Lakes Grand Discovery between Duluth, Minn., and Detroit. Great Lakes Cruise Co. pays 10% commission to agents. Rate information is available at www.greatlakescruising.com.
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