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Alpena becomes a cruise ship destination

Courtesy Photo The Viking Octantis, which makes regular visits to Alpena, is seen in this undated photo.

ALPENA — Viking cruise ships anchored in Thunder Bay and their passengers enjoying a day in Alpena have become common occurrences over the last several years.

This year, Viking has increased the number of times it will port in Alpena during its Great Lakes cruises, which Alpena officials say helps to market the city to the outside world and bolster the bottom line of area small businesses.

Viking began making Alpena a part of its Great Lakes tour package in 2022 with only nine stops, but feedback from passengers pushed the company to bump that total to 20 in 2023.

This year, Viking is pushing that total to 26 stops, which will increase the exposure Alpena attractions and area businesses will receive.

Jeff Gray, superintendent of the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in Alpena, said cruise ships usually house just a touch under 400 passengers for each stop. Many take a shuttle boat to shore and partake in prearranged excursions offered in Northeast Michigan and shop and sample local food and drink options.

Gray said passengers take glass-bottom boat tours to see the shipwrecks in Thunder Bay, visit area lighthouses, go charter fishing, and participate in other activities.

He said the ships usually offer an excursion called Cheers to Alpena, during which passengers visit local breweries and wineries.

A walking tour of downtown Alpena will also be offered this year.

Gray said the feedback Viking has received about Alpena has been overwhelmingly positive and that is a primary reason more visits have been added.

He said Northeast Michigan benefits from the stops in several ways, which could help the area in the short and long term.

He said the money passengers spend in town bolsters local businesses and promotes Alpena and everything it has to offer around the globe. He added that Viking told him that Alpena has been the highest-rated stop on the cruise.

“It is amazing to hear the response about Alpena from the passengers and the crews,” Gray said. “This is making Alpena known worldwide, and, hopefully, some of these people return to stay a few days, move here, or maybe open a business here. Many of these visitors have been all over the world and the fact that they love Northeast Michigan says a lot. I think it can do more to bring more people in by car, bus, or by plane.”

Mary Beth Stutzman, president and CEO of the Alpena Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that, although the passengers don’t spend the night in Alpena, their spending habits provide a bump to the local economy. She said research shows the average cruise passenger spends approximately $80 if they get off the boat and are allowed to circulate through the area.

That means, if 300 passengers come ashore from the ship each time it ports this year, those passengers would pump an extra $624,000 into the local economy.

Stutzman said that, not only is that money welcome, but the experiences the passengers have could be even more beneficial.

“The word-of-mouth that these passengers take home with them can also inspire future travel to the region,” she said. “These activities are awareness-generating, meaning the good word about the Alpena region continues to be shared long after the passengers are headed to their next port of call.”

Anne Gentry, executive director for the Alpena Downtown Development Authority, said businesses now see a bump in revenue from the cruise ship.

She said that, in 2022, the first year Viking added Alpena to its itinerary, downtown businesses didn’t notice a significant jump in the number of people coming into the stores or an increase in sales. She said that shifted last year, when more stops were added and transportation was provided to passengers by having golf carts move them from behind the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, where the visitors get off of the shuttle boat, to downtown.

“There was a definite improvement last year from the previous year and businesses have told me they noticed a big difference in foot traffic, and I think the effort to provide transportation downtown helped a lot,” Gentry said. “There were golf carts, Thunder Bay Transportation (Authority) had shuttles, and there was more of an effort from organizers to get people to the heart of downtown. I think, by adding more stops, and more people, it will be even more helpful, especially when it is in the early season when it is kind of slow.”

Gray said the first cruise ship will arrive on April 29 and the final visit will be on Oct. 4. Those dates are typically just before business and events amp up in Alpena and after they wind down.

Viking has two cruise ships for its Great Lakes Tours, the Polaris and the Octantis, and each will anchor in the bay because they are too large to port in the Thunder Bay River or at the harbor.

It is not uncommon for residents and visitors to gather along the shoreline to snap a photo of the large ships.

Viking Great Lake cruises can be booked on Viking’s website and can range in price from about $5,000 to more than $10,000, depending on the length of the cruise and the type of accommodations people choose.

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