RE Cruise Ships

A letter from CEO Matt McDonough

Recent news of the Discovery Center’s decision to not become a port of call for Great Lakes cruise ships has resulted in wide-spread community reaction.

As a result, I wanted to take this opportunity to review some background and what led to our decision.


In 2016 when Rotary purchased the former coal dock from the City of Traverse City, opportunities were sought to generate revenue for the Discovery Center utilizing this new asset. The goal was – and continues to be – to help fund and maintain improvements on the Pier to create a welcoming, park-like destination for the general public.

Becoming a port of call for the growing Great Lakes cruise industry was one of those possibilities. Over the course of the last few years, we learned about the industry, including:

  1. the size and number of vessels planning to cruise the Great Lakes;
  2. the growing interest in “expedition-style” cruising;
  3. the regulations that govern Great Lakes Cruise Ships including the following: Vessel General_Permit, Small Vessel GP, Ballast W General Permit, and 401 Certification.
  4. the economic impacts of Cruise Ships to the communities they visit;
  5. existing and likely future ports of call; and,
  6. potential revenue gained from being a port of call.

Over the course of 2018, the Discovery Center took steps to become a port of call and was approved by the Coast Guard on December 3, 2018, to receive cruise ships. Later that month, Rotary formed a new nonprofit corporation to govern the Discovery Center and appointed a Board of Directors. The new board started meeting in 2019 – our mission: To connect people of all ages, needs and abilities to the Great Lakes through recreation, education, history, science and stewardship.

On July 7, 2019, the Traverse City Record Eagle published a story about the Discovery Center being open for business for cruise ships and announced the creation of the Traverse City Cruise Consortium – a group of five area organizations with an interest in participating in that endeavor. 

One cruise ship, the Le Champlain (430’, 184 passengers) used the Discovery Pier to disembark its passenger twice last fall (9/24 and 10/4). There were some administrative issues that were of some concern for DCGL. However, none of these represented anything that the general public would have experienced in any negative sense. This experience was taken into consideration in the organization’s decision-making process.

This past January, Viking Cruises announced that they would begin cruising the Great Lakes in 2022 with 8 planned visits to Traverse City. The Traverse City Ticker and the Record Eagle covered that announcement with a photo of the ship that planned to visit. 

Soon thereafter, we started receiving feedback, lots of it, from the community. Linked here is a list of commonly asked questions  we heard from community members and responses from the regulatory agencies along with links to the regulations. It became readily apparent we needed to take some time, review peoples’ input, provide missing information and perhaps re-evaluate future plans.

At that time, we knew of two cruise ships that wanted to visit Traverse City starting in 2020, the Le Champlain (430’, 184 passengers, 4 visits) and the Hanseatic Inspiration (452’, 230 passengers, 2 visits). Viking’s Octantis (672’, 378 passengers, 8 visits) wanted to start visiting in 2022. All but one of those visits was scheduled in the off-season: before mid-June or after Labor Day. We assumed the number of visits would grow into the future. Opinions by Board members and staff on limiting the number of cruise ships were shared and varied widely. Some thought 20 or 30 visits per year would be reasonable. Others felt that only those cruise ships whose passengers would engage with the Discovery Center’s partners to learn about the science and history of the Great Lakes should be considered. None of the ships that reached out to us about visiting Traverse City, and none of the cruise ships the Board and staff considered as potential options in our deliberations, included ships carrying thousands of passengers of the type typically seen in the Caribbean, South Florida or other ocean port cruise destinations.

As our dialogue and deliberations grew, more questions, concerns and opinions were shared with us and our partners by the public. They told us:

  1. Far more of the public and our partners who provided feedback to us were opposed to becoming a port of call for Great Lakes cruise ships. 
  2. Hosting cruise ships at the Discovery Pier could come at the cost of losing valuable partners and community support; and,
  3. This issue was becoming very controversial.


Vitally important to the Discovery Center was to not make a decision in a vacuum that impacted our community and region.

In view of this the Discovery Center made the decision to not be a port of call for the Great Lakes cruise ship industry at this time.

Instead, our focus will be forging new mission-aligned partnerships; pursuing opportunities that are compatible with our mission; and establishing the Discovery Center and Pier as solid community assets that we all can be proud of.

As we move forward together, feel free to contact me at any time. We want and need to hear from you. 

Warmest regards,

Matt McDonough, CEO

Discovery Center