Traverse City News and Events

Cruise Ships Not Welcome: Discovery Center Votes Against Use Of Traverse City Port

By Patrick Sullivan | March 11, 2020

Plans for Traverse City to be a regular stop for massive international cruise ships beginning in summer 2022 appear to be scuppered.

Discovery Center announced its intention to no longer serve as a port of call for cruise ships, effectively leaving cruise lines with nowhere to drop off passengers in the city. Discovery’s board of directors voted on the decision Monday.

The vote comes a month after Discovery Center announced that they had informally agreed to serve as a port of call for Viking Cruises and would host as many as seven Viking ships holding 378 passengers each at the nonprofit’s Greilickville pier.

Discovery CEO Matt McDonough says the nonprofit decided to stick to projects that more closely align with their mission.

“More cruise ships are coming to the Great Lakes sooner than we expected and many want to come to Traverse City,” McDonough tells The Ticker. “The more conversations we had in the community about this issue, the more questions, concerns, and opinions we learned the community had.”

The decision will also impact slightly smaller international cruise ships that had visited the region the past few falls and had also used Discovery Center as a port. McDonough says those visits were slated to increase in number in the coming years.

“Quite frankly, it’s been kind of a push-and-pull decision,” says Becky Ewing, executive director of Rotary Charities and Rotary Camps and Services, of which Discovery is a subsidiary. “Like many other nonprofits, the Discovery Center is looking for ways to both be financially self-sustaining and on point with our mission and goals, and sometimes that’s kind of a tricky balance.”

Concern over the impact of cruise ship visits in Grand Traverse Bay spawned vocal opposition – including from Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers, business owners, and some environmentalists – leading to calls that the cruise lines be kept away.

Carruthers says he thought there should have been a wider community discussion before Viking became a summer-long visitor to Traverse City.

“My frustration was that I read about it in the paper,” Carruthers says. “I think people really want us to manage our recreational resources as well as our natural resources with care.”

Boomerang Catapult Principal Casey Cowell, an outspoken critic, says, "Discovery Zone deserves our appreciation and respect for making the right call. Cruise ships would be no more beneficial here than they have been to Key West. Negative economic, cultural, social impact. Seasonal congestion…and when the cruise ship door gets pried open it will only get worse."

Greg Reisig, chairman of the Northern Michigan Environmental Action Council, says he is pleased with the decision because not enough is known about the potential impacts of Great Lakes cruise ships.

“There’s not a lot of research on these Great Lakes ships,” he says. “We need to do more studies and evaluate what are the environmental impacts.”

The Viking North America press contact could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Traverse City is currently listed on their website as a 2022 port of call in their “Niagara and the Great Lakes” expeditions, which sail from Toronto to Milwaukee.

Trevor Tkach, CEO of Traverse City Tourism, says he is disappointed with Discovery’s decision, noting he believes Great Lakes cruise ships would be good for the region by enabling more people to visit with minimal overall impact on the city’s infrastructure.

Tkach says that he is unaware of any alternative spots in Traverse City that a cruise company could use as a port, but that over time, that could change. Cruise ship ports are regulated by the U.S. Coast Guard.

In the meantime, Tkach says, he thinks Discovery’s decision might be an opportunity for another northern Michigan city that is also close to wineries and near the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

“Frankfort would be fabulous,” Tkach says. “That’s one that immediately comes to mind.”


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