A unique pilot project has started between the Georgian Bay Mnidoo Gamii Biosphere (GBB) and Viking. The Viking Octantis is an expedition cruise ship taking an 8-day route in the Great Lakes that includes three days along eastern Georgian Bay, with a focus on the UNESCO biosphere region and local excursions for guests.

“As educators, we want to welcome visitors and teach them why this area is so special,” said Madyson Taylor, Sustainable Tourism Manager for GBB. “We also want to ensure that local livelihoods in tourism are being supported and that Indigenous culture, Anishinaabek territory and the Great Lakes are being respected. Visitor education is something we’ve always done but this year it’s on a larger scale.”

Viking plans to offer tours with local guides, including landscape painting classes, hiking in Killbear Provincial Park, kayaking and zodiac tours, Anishinaabek youth teaching about their birch bark canoe, bike tours along the waterfront, a cranberry farm and winery tour, and a Biosphere tour of butterfly gardens, honeybee apiary and turtle lab.

“The Great Lakes have been opened to the cruise industry. We want to share our values with new partners and to help their guests understand why we are a world biosphere region designated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO),” said Ron Chase, chair of GBB.

Dr. Becky Pollock, executive director of GBB added: “This pilot is designed around education, science, culture and support for our local economy. We are experimenting with ways to create a travel experience that fits our smaller communities and provides guests opportunities for enrichment and learning that is unique to this place. We also benefit from scientific information gathered by Viking’s equipment, that will help us to understand the health of Georgian Bay and how it is changing over time.”

“In creating ‘the thinking person’s expedition,’ we are offering curious travelers the opportunity to visit some of the most pristine destinations on earth in the most responsible way possible,” said Torstein Hagen, Chairman of Viking, in a company press release.

Ben John is Climate and Energy Programs Manager for GBB. He said: “The Viking Octantis seems to be an excellent example of how sustainable operations can have economic and environmental benefits. Along with heat recovery systems and an electric propulsion system, the vessel has an integrated bow that creates a longer waterline. Together, these features reduce water resistance, create more efficient propulsion, and in turn results in less fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. Overall, these features allow the ship to exceed the International Maritime Organization’s Energy Efficiency Design Index by almost 38%.”

Through a zero-emission chemical incineration process, Viking is able to treat its waste onboard. John explained: “From a lifecycle perspective, this is a major achievement as it eliminates the need to offload and transport waste, avoiding the additional emissions produced during transport and while waste decomposes in our local landfills. While in port, the Viking ship has also been designed to operate solely on electricity, eliminating the need to idle and operate on fossil fuels. Together, all these systems and processes reduce operating costs and avoid the production of GHG emissions in the Biosphere region.” Other ship features include bird-safe lighting developed by Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a science lab, and two small submarines that can detach from the ship.

Tour operators see it as a win-win for their business and for tourists. “Offering bike tours is a new avenue for Parry Sound Bikes,” said owner Aleesha Mullen. “Working with Viking has allowed us the opportunity to grow our business and hire new staff. Our guides love this area and look forward to sharing that love with visitors while showing off our waterfront by bike.”

Parry Sound will see 20 ports of call from cruise ships in 2022, according to Vladimir Shehovtsov, Economic Development Officer for the Town of Parry Sound. “Tourism recovery from Covid-19 is a priority for our community,” he says, “and is supported by federal and provincial agencies. Cruise ships represent an opportunity for Parry Sound to grow and to showcase the Biosphere internationally.”

The first visit of Viking’s Octantis cruise ship tendered in Parry Sound, with a length of 203m (666 ft) and up to 378 guests, will visit Parry Sound regularly starting in 2022.

From left to right: Brenda Lima dos Santos, Viking Shore Excursion Crew; Vladimir Shehovtsov and Navneet Bhagla, Town of Parry Sound; Dr. Becky Pollock and Madyson Taylor, Georgian Bay Biosphere. (Photo credit: L. Middaugh).

One of the tours is led by the Georgian Bay Anishinaabek Youth (GBAY) – an Indigenous youth-led grassroots initiative for cultural land-based learning. Kyla Judge is Anishinaabekwe and a founding member and she said: “This summer, we have a really unique opportunity to share our stories, our experiences as Anishinaabek youth – and to gain some compensation as reciprocity for the value of that knowledge and our work to revitalize our culture.”

Judge said visitor education in the region has been lacking in Treaty education, cultural knowledge, history, and awareness. “GBAY has the opportunity to change and rewrite the narrative. We have the opportunity to share our love for Mnidoo Gamii (Georgian Bay), to share the stories and the language of the land as told by the original caretakers. Through this work, we are building leadership among youth. I can’t think of a better way to spend the summer than to be out on the bay paddling Oshkinigig, our birch bark canoe.”

We want to hear from you! We know that there are concerns about our involvement in this pilot project with Viking Cruises; we share some of these concerns and respect your views. Please connect with Becky Pollock, our executive director, to share your questions and thoughts about tourism in a UNESCO biosphere region. She can be reached at 705.774.0978 or by email.

Thank you, Miigwech.