Fewer Cruisers Projected to Visit Milwaukee This Season

Milwaukee experienced unprecedented cruise tourism last year.

The first cruise ship of the 2023 season arrived in the Milwaukee Harbor on Thursday. The Viking Octantis’ stop in Milwaukee begins a season where 31 port calls by various cruise ships are planned, bringing an estimated 12,000 passengers to the city, according to figures provided by Port Milwaukee.

The projected cruise ship passenger figures, if they hold true, would mean a 12% decline from a year ago, when 33 vessel calls brought 13,611 passengers to Milwaukee, according to the port’s annual report.

Port Milwaukee spokesman Jonathan Fera stressed that the figures for this cruise season are estimates and could be exceeded depending on potential schedule changes. Last year, Port Milwaukee projected that cruise ships would bring 10,000 passengers to Milwaukee but far exceeded that figure due to additional port calls and itinerary changes throughout the season.

During the 2019 season, cruise ships made 10 stops in the Milwaukee Harbor, which brought about 1,000 passengers to the city before Great Lakes cruising halted entirely for the 2020 and 2021 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2018, fewer than 1,000 passengers traveled on cruise ships through the Great Lakes to Milwaukee.



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The 2022 season, which ran through late October, concluded with the arrival of the 400-passenger Hamburg operated by Plantours, a Bremen, Germany-based cruise company. The Hamburg and Octantis were among eight cruise ships that designated Milwaukee as a port-of-call last year. 

Cruise passengers generated an economic impact of about $3.1 million for Milwaukee last cruise season, according to Visit Milwaukee, the city’s convention and visitors bureau.

Operated by Viking, the massive Octantis can carry up to 378 passengers and more than 250 crew members and is the largest vessel ever to sail on the Great Lakes. This will be the second season in which Viking has designated Milwaukee as an embarkation and debarkation port for the company’s Great Lakes itineraries. 

Viking will also be introducing a second, identical ship, the Viking Polaris, to the Great Lakes in 2023, doubling this cruise line company’s capacity in the region and creating more recreational tourism opportunities in Milwaukee. The Polaris is expected to make its initial stop in Milwaukee in June, Fera said.

“Port Milwaukee’s Great Lakes cruise industry has elevated our profile within the community and around the world. More residents are becoming familiar with Port Milwaukee’s work because of this new tourism sector, and we’re excited for more growth in the years ahead,” Port Milwaukee Director Jackie Carter said. “The Port is looking forward to another successful Great Lakes recreational cruise season in 2023.”

Following two years of pandemic-related cancellations, Milwaukee’s Great Lakes cruise season returned with significant momentum and success in 2022. An unprecedented number of international passengers and cruise vessels traveled to-or-from Milwaukee last year.

“Milwaukee is a great destination, filled with attractions and hospitality. People from around the globe are taking notice of our city,” Mayor Cavalier Johnson said. “This is a wonderful example of how local and regional partnerships are creating new excitement and activity in Milwaukee.”

Viking will once again utilize the Port’s heavy lift dock this season as its docking location. The South Shore cruise dock, located immediately east of the Lake Express high-speed ferry terminal, will serve as the future port-of-call for vessels the size of the Octantis and Polaris. Construction of the South Shore cruise dock is expected to begin in 2024. The financing package for its construction includes $3.5 million in capital tourism grant funding from the state.

Port Milwaukee continues to promote the passenger cruise business in Milwaukee and throughout the Great Lakes. Port Milwaukee is the founder of the Milwaukee Cruise Collaborative, a local group promoting the city as a cruise destination. The collaborative, which includes a cross section of the local hospitality industry, has planned, promoted and prepared for increased Great Lakes cruise passengers.

Members of the public can stay up to date on cruise ship arrivals and departures through Port Milwaukee’s virtual vessel tracker, which is available online



Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.