With a parade of tall ships set to sail through the harbor and music blasting from the bayfront, Duluth is gearing up for its largest crowds of the year.
The city’s annual Bayfront Blues Festival runs Friday through Sunday, and the Festival of Sail — the return of the popular replicas of majestic, old-timey wooden vessels — will take place Sunday through Tuesday.
Last time the tall ships came to town, in 2016, they drew about a quarter of a million people to Duluth. The renowned Grandma’s Marathon, for comparison, only brings upward of 50,000 people to the city each June.
“This will absolutely be the busiest weekend in Duluth for the year,” city spokeswoman Kate Van Daele said.
The Festival of Sail will be mostly the same as the Tall Ships Duluth events in 2010, 2013 and 2016 — the name changed simply because organizers didn’t want to pay to use a trademarked title, said Craig Samborski, who runs the festival.
Seven ships will make their way through the Great Lakes to Duluth for the festival, along with the world’s largest rubber duck, a 61-foot inflatable named Mama accompanied by her 10-foot floatie son, Timmy. Tickets have already been purchased by people from all 50 states and every Canadian province, and the $99 spots on the tall ship sailing excursions sold out hours after they went on sale in November.
“People have a connection to Duluth for some reason,” said Samborski, who forged his own ties to the city when he moved there at age 12. “Plus, Duluth has just become a huge tourist destination.”
Indeed, tourism tax revenue went up 4.7% last year in Duluth to rake in a total of $12.1 million. In the past few decades, tourism has become the city’s third largest industry due at least in part to a push to promote Duluth as a vacation spot, said Anna Tanski, president of Visit Duluth, the company the city contracts to market tourism.
Two-thirds of visitors come to the Twin Ports from the Twin Cities, but Visit Duluth has been ramping up its efforts to advertise Lake Superior and the opportunities it offers to outdoor adventurers from all over — and during all months of the year, Tanski said.
“Of course summer, times like this weekend, will always be the crown jewel,” she said.
City officials and event organizers wouldn’t give crowd estimates before the festival, but they expect turnout to be lower than in the past because it’s the first time the tall ships won’t be in town on all weekend days. But the blues festival, a longtime Duluth summer tradition, could bump up the numbers.
Van Daele said the Bayfront Blues Festival expects 20,000 people to come out over the course of the weekend, though she doesn’t know how many will head to the stages Sunday, the only day the two festivals overlap. She hopes that will spread out the traffic at hotels and restaurants a little, she added.
The city of Duluth will close some of the streets near the Canal Park area, and the Aerial Lift Bridge will open longer than normal Sunday morning to allow the tall ships to cruise through. Van Daele encouraged people to take advantage of the free trolley the city offers to avoid driving in downtown congestion. Samborski added that Festival of Sail attendees could save time by purchasing tickets ahead of time or reserving a spot in their contracted parking lot that offers a shuttle to the festival grounds.
The state Department of Transportation also warned that traffic on Interstate 35 could be bad as festivalgoers travel to and from Duluth.
“It’s a great problem for the city to have,” Van Daele said. “We’re really excited to host these festivals because it’s just one more way to introduce people who may not have been to Duluth to a place that we all really love.”