Stephen Burnett thinks he has a strategy that will bring an influx of tourists to hard-hit communities along the St. Lawrence River by inviting cruise ships to send passengers ashore to engage with local attractions and businesses.
Burnett, executive director of the Great Lakes Cruise Association and himself a mariner, has spent the past 21 years focused on reactivating the river and the Great Lakes cruise industry. Due to recent advances in cruise ship navigation and technology, what was once impossible could now potentially be a viable part of southeastern Ontario’s economic recovery post-pandemic.
“Living in the region allows me to provide a first-person account of what the St. Lawrence has to offer,” says Burnett. “This allows me to present the region with passion, knowledge and vision.”
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The St. Lawrence has historically been a route for smaller U.S.-based cruise ship operators touring overnight passengers from the Atlantic coast through to the Great Lakes. Although passengers are able to see smaller towns and cities as they pass by, there was no option to disembark because very few southeastern Ontario communities have the necessary marine port infrastructure to accommodate cruise ship docking.
“There are communities that don’t have ports and they can’t afford ports and they shouldn’t be spending hard-earned money on building ports,” said Burnett. Still, he believes these communities have a tremendous amount to offer travelers who want to do more than just observe the scenery on their way by.
Cruise operators, responding to a growing demand for more active and engaged tourism experiences, have launched more nimble cruise ships able to pilot to smaller communities and off-the-beaten-path destinations. Dynamic position technology allows these cruise ships to “park” offshore, without using anchors, and safely launch smaller watercraft, or tenders, to shuttle passengers to shore and back without the need for a port. This is a game-changer for smaller communities along the St. Lawrence and in the Great Lakes region.
“People could go ashore using the tenders on the ship and visit the community and do nature-based activities such as hiking, biking, canoeing, kayaking, touring and meeting the community,” says Burnett.
Expedition cruising is currently offered in various locations from Alaska to Antarctica and tends to attract a curious and more physically active crowd. Because of the smaller passenger capacity of the ships, operators look to develop unique and immersive on-shore programs and excursions.
This includes the opportunity to actively engage with local communities and their history, people, food and culture and make deeper connections to each locale. On the flip side, it creates economic opportunities for communities to showcase their products and services to an entirely new and, in the case of the cruise industry, untapped market.
Of particular importance to Burnett and the GLCA is creating new opportunities for Indigenous communities to engage and participate, in terms of economic development but also to enable authentic cultural education.
“The GLCA has a commitment to include Indigenous tourism programming wherever possible and this commitment encourages Indigenous communities to tell their own stories rather than have it interpreted from outside their community,” Burnett explains.
This commitment to empowering Indigenous tourism by making the communities more accessible is something that appeals to Bonnie Ruddock, executive director of RTO 9, a provincially funded regional tourism organization based in Kingston.
“We’ve been working with Indigenous Tourism Ontario for the last year and a half to work with their operators on building more opportunities within southeastern Ontario,” says Ruddock. “So when Stephen approached us about cruising in this part of the region, definitely it’s something we’re interested in as well.”
As with any undertaking of this magnitude, there are still many hurdles to overcome, as well as partnerships and approvals to be developed and signed, before the program can get underway. For now, the Port of Johnstown remains the sole cruise stop along the southeastern Ontario stretch of the St. Lawrence.
Looking ahead, Burnett remains optimistic and committed to his plan for activating the area.
“I have spoken to each of the cruise lines heading this way and there is definite interest in what the region will have to offer for future cruise visits,” he says. “I don’t think we have an insurmountable challenge in persuading the cruise line operators to include more of the St. Lawrence.”