Nine cruise ships docked in Cleveland last year, bringing 1,500 visitors to town. And this year the Port of Cleveland expects twice that many.

Visitors generally take in the sights from the water, including the old Coast Guard Station and the bridges over the Cuyahoga River. On land, they may stop at landmarks like the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, earning Cleveland the second-highest rating on Victory Cruise Lines.

In Cleveland, volunteers greet passengers with cheers, songs and signs.

“When I’m out in shows I always see people light up when I talk about the Great Lakes,” said Blount representative Kayla Setters. “It seems to be a place people are interested by.”

The number of cruise ships on the Great Lakes is growing, said Bruce Nierenberg, chairman of Victory Cruise Lines, which also offers cruises in Cuba. Victory will have 19 cruises on the Great Lakes in 2018, its third year operating here.

Three companies operate Great Lakes cruises. Each ship holds 80 to 200 passengers, many of them senior citizens who enjoy historical tours and lectures on board, from eight to 16-day tours with stops in the United States and Canada.

    • Victory, with Victory I and II: Nine-day cruises, which start at $4,500, all inclusive. Generally nine-day tours from Chicago to Toronto, or vice versa.
    • Pearl: 11-day cruise on four Great Lakes.
    • Blount Small Ships, with the Grande Caribe and Grande Mariner: Two itineraries, a 16-day cruise from New York to Chicago or vice versa, starting at $5,000, and an eight-day tour of Lake Michigan.

“They’re not party boats by any means,” said Jeanne Psychas, of Great Lakes Cruise Co., which coordinates the companies’ itineraries in the lakes. “It’s  more of an enrichment type of cruise.” 

Victory Cruise Lines added Cleveland to its itinerary last year, and it ended as guests’ second favorite port, after Mackinac Island, Nierenberg said.

“We knew it would be cool,” hse said. “They love going to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They just absolutely loved Cleveland…. We are very, very happy with that experiment.”

Many Great Lakes cruise guests are from California, Texas or Florida, and they know nearly nothing about the Great Lakes, Psychas said. “It’s kind of a bucket list for a lot of people. People are really excited about the history.”

The Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Great Lakes Cruise Co. does not own or operate any of the cruise ships. The company brought the dormant cruise industry back to the Great Lakes in the late 1990s, when Tom Colin and his son, Chris, formed Great Lakes Cruise and operated the first American charter of the 420-passenger German ship, MV Columbus, there.

“From the magnificent spectacle of Niagara Falls, to Mackinac Island’s Victorian charm,” Great Lakes Cruise Co. President Chris Conlin writes on his company web site. “From rolling dunes and grand vistas, to miles of white sand beaches. From emerald green forests, to blazing sunsets that turn the watery horizon to flame, the journey awaits.”

Said Psychas: “I think the standout comment is: ‘Wow, we didn’t realize the lakes were so big. It’s like being on the ocean. Or the history. Or just how beautiful it is.”