Cruising returns to the Great Lakes – and to Cleveland, which has a new customs facility for passengers

CLEVELAND, Ohio – For the first time in more than two and a half years, a cruise ship docked at the Port of Cleveland, and visitors disembarked to explore the Land.

Among them: Jay and Barbara Lindsey, first-time visitors to Cleveland from Fort Worth, Texas, who were looking forward to exploring the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; Jim and Monica Gohm from Prescott, Arizona, who were taking a tour of Geauga County’s Amish community; and Kathy and Jim Ross, from Tampa, Florida, also headed to the Rock Hall.

They were passengers aboard the Ocean Navigator, part of American Queen Voyages, which has returned to the Great Lakes for the first time since 2019. The group was in the middle of an 11-day tour, cruising from Toronto to Chicago, with a full day devoted to Cleveland.

But before the fun could begin: Cruisers had to clear customs in the port’s new customs clearance facility, located a couple hundred feet from the water, just west of FirstEnergy Stadium. The facility, located in the former Seamen’s Service building, was completed in late 2019, just before the coronavirus pandemic shut down Great Lakes cruising for two full seasons.

Previously, cruise passengers who stopped in Cleveland were screened in a temporary facility set up near the water, without access to restrooms or temperature control. Most Great Lakes cruises go back and forth between the US and Canada, necessitating frequent customs screenings.

The port spent close to $800,000 to gut the building for the US Customs and Border Patrol, said Dave Gutheil, chief commercial officer for the port. “It’s been collecting dust,” said Gutheil on Wednesday, as he watched crew and passengers disembark. “It’s good to finally use it.”

After screening, passengers exited through the rear of the building, to West 3rd Street, where tour buses were waiting to take them for a day of Cleveland sightseeing.

Cleveland’s Great Day! Tours was providing a hop-on, hop-off service, dropping and picking up tourists at the nearby Rock Hall, the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland History Center and Public Square. And Ridgeview Tours in Middlefield was offering an Amish Experience tour, which included a meal in an Amish home and shopping in Geauga County.

“This is great for Cleveland, and we appreciate the business,” said Sharon Grover, Ridgeview’s owner.

Cleveland has seen a steady increase in cruise ships in recent years, as Great Lakes cruising enjoys a renaissance (pre-COVID, anyway). This year, Cleveland is expected to welcome 36 ships, according to Gutheil, up from 22 in 2019.

Most of those ships are part of American Queen Voyages (formerly Victory Cruise Line). The Ocean Navigator is one of two 202-passenger American Queen ships that will cruise the Great Lakes this summer, making 34 stops in Cleveland.

New this year on the Great Lakes – Viking, the luxury cruise line best known for its European river cruises. The first Viking cruises do not include a stop in Cleveland. In 2023, however, Viking will sail a 15-day Great Lakes Collection itinerary, which does include a day in Cleveland.

Read more: Cleveland added as a stop on new Viking cruise through the Great Lakes

Gutheil explained the growing appeal of the Great Lakes: “The cruise industry around the world is maturing. The Great Lakes to many is virgin territory. A lot of people don’t know about it.”

Indeed, Jim Ross from Tampa said he’s always wanted to visit the Great Lakes region. A fan of author Jim Harrison, who wrote extensively about northern Michigan, Ross said he was looking forward to stops at Mackinac Island and Sault Ste. Mary.

Dawn and Sharon Sambueso, mother and daughter travelers from Fresno, California, chose the Great Lakes cruise because they have always wanted to see Niagara Falls. The ship stopped in Port Colborne, near the Ontario side of the falls, on Tuesday. “Everybody has to see that once,” said Sharon Sambueso.

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