Cruise ship tourists flocking to the Great Lakes, northern Ontario ports

Cruise ships are giving the tourism industry in northern Ontario a boost this summer. And it's expected to keep growing in the years ahead.

10 new cruise ships being built to serve Great Lakes market

Cruiseship visitors to Manitoulin Island take in the show at the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation in M'Chigeeng. (Erik White/CBC )

Dozens of smart phones and digital cameras are held up as Anishinaabe drummers, dancers and singers perform for a crowd of American tourists.

They just arrived on Manitoulin Island a few hours earlier and were whisked from their cruise ship in Little Current by tour bus to the Ojibwe Cultural Foundation in M'Chigeeng, where a sort-of miniature powwow is put on every time a ship is in port.

"To me, this is real people," says Barbara Wuebbles from Urbana, Illinois.

Her husband teaches atmospheric science at the University of Illinois and is one of the leading experts on the effect climate change will have on the Great Lakes.

Victory Cruise Lines is one of several companies serving the growing market for Great Lakes cruises. (Erik White/CBC )

So, it wasn't a tough decision when they heard about the chance to cruise the lakes from Toronto up to Lake Superior.

But Don Wuebbles says they'd likely have booked the holiday anyway. 

"We don't see our own country. How little of North America we've really seen," he says.

"Even if you travel around a lot, there's lots of places you haven't seen. So, coming to this island and seeing things I haven't seen before is great."

Cruise ships travelled the upper Great Lakes decades ago and returned in a modern version in the late 1990s. 

In recent years, the sales have increased for packages running as much as $9,000 for a seven-day cruise and those in the industry are expecting a boom in the next few years.

Currently about a half dozen ships tour the upper lakes, but about 10 new ships are being built now to serve the Great Lakes market. 

Cruiseship passengers disembark in Little Current on Manitoulin Island. (Erik White/CBC )

Don Wittler from Omaha says he likes not having to spend a whole day flying to Europe for a river cruise and finds the Great Lakes landscape just as exotic.

"We live in the Great Plains. If you drove down Interstate 80 through Nebraska, you'd get tired of looking at farm ground," he says. 

"So this is totally new to us."

Cruise ship tourism isn't totally new in the north, but cities and towns are definitely taking it more seriously.

In Sault Ste. Marie, which will see some 20 ship visits this summer, downtown merchants have set up an artisan's market on the waterfront to greet cruise ship passengers.

"What they're looking for is really that welcome from port to port, when they land," says Jennifer King-Callon from Tourism Sault Ste. Marie.

"So, they really want that local flavour and that local experience."

Excursions out of Sault Ste. Marie include visiting historic sites, the bushplane museum and a look at autumn colours and maple syrup production on St. Joseph Island.

But King-Callon says they want to offer more opportunities for wilderness adventures while the ship is in port.

Bruce O'Hare founded Lakeshore Excursions on Manitoulin Island 20 years ago and the company now organizes cruiseship outings across Canada. (Erik White/CBC )

Bruce O'Hare founded Lakeshore Excursions on Manitoulin Island in 1997 and now runs tours for cruise ship tourists in 25 cities and towns between Thunder Bay and Boston.

"Simply, the time is now for the Great Lakes," he says.

"When people arrive by ship, they take away memories and they leave behind money."

O'Hare predicts that in the coming years, more tourists will come to the Great Lakes for wilderness adventures and explore northern Ontario by kayak, mountain bike or perhaps even submarine. 

About the Author

Erik White


Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to


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