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Cruise line to offer trip between Duluth and Toronto

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The Twin Ports will welcome a new cruise ship in 2009, when Travel Dynamics International aims to launch regular service between Duluth and Toronto. But the Duluth Seaway Port Authority wants to take steps to ensure clear sailing for the new service. That includes figuring out a way for passengers to enter the United States by water with a minimum amount of inconvenience, despite mounting efforts to better secure the nation's borders.

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A few weeks ago, Travel Dynamics, based in New York City, announced its acquisition of a 50-suite, 100-passenger cruise ship called the Clelia II. This year, the 290-foot vessel will be refurbished and its hull will be upgraded to ice-class standards for future cruise service in Antarctica and the Arctic. During the summer and early fall of 2009, however, the Clelia II is destined to make 14 voyages between Duluth and Toronto. The cruise will be sold as a seven-day, one-way service.

Tickets won't come cheap. Passage on the ship begins at $5,600 per person and can cost up to $10,700 for a penthouse suite. That price includes food, drink, shore excursions and other programming.

"Like all our trips, it will have an educational theme. We will explore the are's geology, its environmental aspects, the War of 1812 and other historic events," said George Papagapitos, Travel Dynamics' co-founder.

In order to pull off the new service, however, the Twin Ports will need to work through some details with Homeland Security officials.

"We need to have an open dialog with U.S. Customs and the Border Patrol," said Adolph Ojard, executive director of the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. "Without jeopardizing security, they may be able to make some minor accommodations that will allow us to grow this industry."

SECURITY OBJECTIONS

Ojard said he wants to avoid any repeat of problems the MV Columbus encountered in September. That German cruise ship had planned to deliver its passengers to a final destination in Chicago as part of a Great Lakes tour, but Homeland Security officials rejected the itinerary, saying the city lacked a marine terminal with appropriate security and screening facilities to receive foreign travelers. Efforts to reroute the vessel to Milwaukee or Duluth met with the same objection.

The Columbus' agent, InterShip Inc., was informed that only a registered US-VISIT facility " complete with baggage screening equipment, biometric controls and a host of other security features " could receive the ship. But not one terminal on the Great Lakes qualifies as a US-VISIT facility.

Ultimately, passengers aboard the Columbus were forced to load into lifeboats bound for Canada while their vessel was anchored in the St. Marys River. The cruiseline operator, Hapag-Lloyd, then chartered a bus to pick up the passengers and drive them to an established border crossing, where travelers could clear customs before resuming their trip to Chicago.

"It was nuts," Ojard said. "They lost an entire day just to clear customs, and people could have been seriously hurt using lifeboats. It was not well-thought-out. But no one would make any accommodations."

NASCENT INDUSTRY TAKES HIT

Ojard said the ordeal was disheartening not only for passengers but for all those who have worked diligently to promote Great Lakes cruising in recent years.

The Columbus has scheduled no return trips to the Great Lakes in 2008 or 2009. However, Sebastian Ahren, managing director of Hapag-Lloyd Cruises, said the decision to cruise elsewhere wasn't driven primarily by border difficulties.

"Our decision not to cruise the Great Lakes this year or next year was purely based on the water level," he said in a written statement. "Although we had to face some incidents concerning embarkments and border control, this was not swinging the decision. We will have a close look on the natural and administrative development, but we don't count out offering cruises on the Lakes in some years again."

The 400-passenger Columbus was designed especially to operate on the Great Lakes and navigate its system of locks. Cindy Tanenbaum, a spokeswoman for Hapag-Lloyd expects the ship will return if water levels rebound.

"Our Great Lakes cruises have been very popular," she said. "They always sell out."

ADDITIONAL COMPLICATIONS

Chris Conlin, president of Great Lakes Cruise Co., an Ann Arbor, Mich., company that books cruises aboard a fleet of several ships, including the Columbus, remains upbeat about the future of the industry but acknowledged that security concerns since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, have complicated nondomestic cruise operations. He said constantly changing rules have added to the confusion.

"I would hope there would be great cooperation between the ports and Homeland Security to anticipate travelers and set up appropriate security and clearing processes. The cruise industry represents valuable economic development. So it makes sense to work these kinds of details out in advance and communicate them widely," Conlin said.

FEDERAL FLEXIBILITY?

Ojard said the Duluth Seaway Port Authority has discussed its situation with receptive congressional representatives.

Staff members of Sen. Norm Coleman said he is already exploring the issue.

"The development of a cruise industry on the Great Lakes could have a positive economic impact on Duluth. I have communicated the concerns of the Port Authority to U.S. Customs and Border Protection and will continue to work with both parties to see that an agreement on a customs clearance process can be reached," Coleman said.

Likewise, Rep. Jim Oberstar also is prepared to enter the fray.

"It's not an acceptable situation if we have people who are interested in operating a cruise service out of Duluth but can't because of problems with Homeland Security," said John Schadl, a spokesman for Oberstar. He said Oberstar considers the issue a priority and will definitely look into the matter.

"If we're capable of handling international arrivals five miles away [at Duluth International Airport], why can't we down the hill?" Schadl asked.

He said federal agencies should be flexible enough to handle the arrival of relatively small groups by ship. Schadl said Oberstar will look into obtaining any additional tools or resources, within reason, that are needed to handle the job.

Ojard noted that the relatively small volume of cruise traffic the Twin Ports expects to handle would make it hard to justify sinking $3 million to $4 million into a new passenger terminal.

Erie, Pa., recently invested $4.7 million to build a marine passenger terminal. Meanwhile Toledo and Detroit are constructing facilities as well.

Even without a new terminal, Papagapitos remains confident it will be possible to operate a cruise service between Duluth and Toronto.

"The issue of security is here to stay with us. But if we plan in advance, I think proper arrangements can be made," he said.

Papagapitos envisions the Duluth-Toronto trip becoming a staple of Great Lakes cruising.

"We view ourselves as a long-term player on the Great Lakes," he said. "If the authorities help us have a successful operation and if they don't make unreasonable requests, I see us offering this service every summer for years to come."

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