Port Colborne boardwalk with bike rider and big rock
Boats Heading

You don’t need to go south to catch a cruise ship. The industry is coming to Port Colborne.

The city of Port Colborne, Ont., sits on Lake Erie at the southern end of the Welland Canal — the waterway connecting two of the Great Lakes. 

A gem in the Niagara Region, it’s the kind of community where young families want to settle; the one-time village, named after a British war hero, is full of unique shops, delicious restaurants, sandy beaches, scenic trails and pretty much everything else you’d look for in a port that’s about to welcome cruise ships to their shores. If ever we needed something safe and fun to do close to home, now would certainly be the time. So, it’s no surprise that Port Colborne is relishing the recent news that their city will soon
be a major port of call for Great Lakes cruises visiting Ontario. “The Great Lakes offers cruising to renaissance cities, smaller communities and lakeside villages in each of the Great Lakes,” says Stephen Burnett, the executive director of the Great Lakes Cruise Association. “It also offers fascinating history, which embraces Indigenous communities and highlights the growth of Canada as a nation.” Mayor Bill Steele was born and raised in Port Colborne. The 59-year-old served on city council for 17 years and after a four-year hiatus, he won the mayorship three years ago. “[My family has] always been highly involved in our city. We’re really community-oriented and [I] bring that to the job here,” he says. After a tough year and a half dealing with the pandemic and helping local businesses pivot, Steele says he’s ready to bring one of his campaign promises to fruition.

Local businesses are starting to plan. With at least 50 stops in
Port Colborne next year, and 180 to 420 passengers per vessel, there’s a big opportunity for retailers and restaurants.

“There’s a picture in my office of the SS Noronic, which was a boat that eventually burned at Toronto Harbour, but it used to stop in Port Colborne during Great Lakes cruises in the early 1920s. So, cruising for Port Colborne goes way back. There has been some growth in Great Lakes cruising since the ’90s and Port Colborne has seen some ships in the last few years,” he explains. “But unfortunately they stop on the working side of our canal, so when people get off the boat, it’s stone dust and everything else from days gone by. That means it hasn’t been very appealing for people to get off ships.”

That’s about to change. Steele and his team have been working with The St. Lawrence Seaway Management Corporation and they’ve agreed to move the majority of ships to the west side of the canal, where it’s more recreational. “Our West Street is directly on the canal’s great promenade, which is a pretty big retail area,” he says. “The west-side dock is called Dock 18. We want to see this dock work not only for the cruise ships, but for the marine industry to bring goods in and out. It’s a huge dock so it can handle a lot of commodities. Once rehabilitation of the area is complete, we’re looking at welcoming more cruise ships than we’ve ever had.”

Local businesses are starting to plan. With at least 50 stops in Port Colborne next year, and 180 to 420 passengers per vessel, there’s a big opportunity for retailers and restaurants. “Really, what you want to capture is 10 to 15 percent of those cruise passengers. That’s pretty successful. Plus, there’s about 100 crew at a time. The good thing about the cruise industry is it’s not, ‘We’ll wait for the ship; it will get here sometime.’ No, they’re on a pretty tight schedule, so you know the ship is going to dock at noon and they’ll be here for however many hours. We just have to make sure that during the time they’re here, we’re all open for business,” Steele says.

Not only is the city working with the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown BIA, they’ve also hired a consulting company to assist with the project. “It won’t be like Carnival Cruise docking in Jamaica or Barbados with thousands of people getting off the ship, but it’s significant and we want to ensure we’re capturing and entertaining passengers and crew,” says Steele. He and his team are also looking to private enterprise to create shore excursions that will be included when passengers book their cruises. “So, when they stop in Port Colborne and they have eight hours to pass the time, they have something to do. Some of them will have already been to Niagara Falls and the wineries, so let’s get them here into our downtown core, our museum, our Showboat Festival Theatre at the Roselawn Centre. Or maybe passengers can rent bikes to take on one of our trails, or rent canoes or kayaks. Our marina has charter services, too, so maybe someone wants to go out for a few hours and catch pickerel. We have lots of options,” says Steele. “Those are the types of things we have to develop — it won’t happen overnight. It’s going to take a lot of time and hard work by the city and the business community. Next year will be a real watershed year for us, but we’re all excited.”

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