In 2017, nine cruise ships docked in the port. The next year, that number grew to 22, and last year it was 28. As of now, 41 cruise ships are scheduled to dock in Cleveland in 2020.
"The last five years have seen an explosion of cruise vessel activity in and around Lake Erie," said David Gutheil, chief commercial officer for the port. "One of the reasons for that is the cruise industry around the world is saturated. The Great Lakes is really the last geographic area for cruise vessel calls."
"We operate in a different market than previous Great Lakes cruise line operators, but we do plan to pour $100 million in marketing over the next five years, and that should benefit all the operators in the Great Lakes," Grimes said.
Lake cruise ships are smaller than their oceangoing counterparts, typically holding 200-450 passengers, each of whom are estimated to spend about $150 during a visit to Cleveland.
Although Viking has not officially scheduled a stop at Cleveland when it launches in 2022, Gutheil said it is just a matter of time before the port is added to the company's schedule of Great Lakes destinations.
One of the reasons Gutheil is so confident is the renewed attention ports like Cleveland are receiving. That includes newly allocated public funding; monies that he and his staff have spent the last few years lobbying for in D.C. and Columbus.
"About three years ago, four years ago now, we asked other port authorities what federal funds were available and there were none," said Jade Davis, vice president of external affairs for the Port of Cleveland.
That has changed. The port was recently awarded $11 million in federal funds, including $9 million (with the Northeast Ohio Areawide Coordinating Agency) for the Irishtown Bend project in the Flats. Along with that, the state of Ohio agreed to provide one-to-one matching funds of up to $23 million over two years from the Ohio Maritime Assistance program, in addition to $2.6 million for capital projects.
Ohio Rep. Dave Joyce advocated for $200 million in total Port Infrastructure Development Grant funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation because he sees Cleveland's port as a huge economic driver for the region.
"As one of the largest ports on the Great Lakes, it supports more than 20,000 jobs and generates $3.5 billion in economic activity every year," he said.
The Great Lakes ports will receive about 12% of that $200 million, according to Davis. The funding is critical as the port shows significant signs of wear following decades of neglect while coastal ports received the bulk of governmental infrastructure investment. Issues include Dock 26 West, which was closed down in late 2018 and requires an estimated $18 million to repair.
Rather than ask taxpayers to fund the repairs through bonds or tax increases, Davis lobbied for nonlocal funding.
"We set out to create programs and funding opportunities," he said. "Nationally, we teamed up with other ports to help advance legislation to get new funding programs created, which ended up becoming the Port Infrastructure Grant."
The funding is part of an overall awareness strategy for the port to convince carriers to rethink the way cargo is brought into the "heartland" and aggressively market the benefits of leaving the congested coastal ports in favor of the Great Lakes.
"The more goods that flow into the coastal ports, the more congested they become. They should be looking at the Great Lakes as a release valve," Gutheil said.
Overseas container shipping to the larger coastal ports in New York and California has stunted the amount of commercial goods that once traveled through the St. Lawrence Seaway to the Great Lakes and Cleveland, dropping the cargo total traveling through the waterway from a peak of 70 million tons to just 40 million tons in 2019.
Now, environmental concerns and infrastructure stresses of over-the-road cargo transportation mean the Great Lakes look like a better option for some.