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August 5, 2021

Bar Harbor considers limits on cruise ship numbers, and industry pushes back

people and bus at wharf File photo / Laurie Schreiber Bar Harbor is tackling the issue of downtown congestion on busy cruise ship days. Seen here in a pre-pandemic year, the town wharf often becomes crowded with disembarking passengers and tour buses.

Maine’s largest cruise-ship port of call, Bar Harbor, is considering whether to limit the vessel visits in order to relieve downtown congestion.

But now the Bar Harbor Town Council has received a warning about the potential measures from an industry group, Cruise Lines International Association.

“There are obvious legal and constitutional issues that attend any effort by local governments to restrict the size, capacity or port access of vessels authorized by U.S. and international law to operate in the maritime commerce of the United States,” the group's president and CEO, Kelly Craighead, wrote the council in a letter last week.

Craighead also said she welcomed constructive dialogue and collaboration with the town toward “a mutually agreeable solution.”

Town Council Matthew Hochman commented on the letter during the workshop on Monday, saying, “We need to work collaboratively with the cruise ship industry."

Scaling back

The council held the workshop in response to a recent community survey that revealed many Bar Harbor residents and business owners favor scaling back the number of cruise ship visits. Some survey participants called for a permanent ban, although others said the ships are important to the local economy.

In 2019, Bar Harbor hosted 157 cruise ships that carried 250,164 passengers.

Projected for 2022, 174 ships carrying 292,212 passengers are so far scheduled for port visits.

That’s a passenger count increase of about 50,000.

The workshop considered strategies such as limits on the number of ships per year, number of passengers per year, the maximum size of ships and number of days per week for ship visits.

The discussion also considered the strategy of changing the cruise ship anchorage so it would not impede the harbor view.

2022 will be new record

Bar Harbor’s harbormaster, Chris Wharff, noted that ship sizes are trending upward. In 2016, the average number of passengers per ship on a September day was 1,800. The average in 2019 at the same time of year was about 3,000. 

The number of big ships planning a visit to Bar Harbor is increasing, too, he said. In 2019, there were about 50 ships with a capacity of over 2,000 passengers. Projected for 2022, 87 ships have a capacity of over 2,000. 

On the books already for 2024 are 59 ships that can carry a total of 159,000 passengers. By contrast, the capacity load was about the same for the 116 ships that called on Bar Harbor in 2016.

It’s estimated that most passengers disembark to visit Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park.

Council members had various suggestions for reductions in numbers but no firm conclusions.

“The north star for me is the survey,” said Councilor Jill Goldthwait. “And what we heard in the survey is people are concerned about overcrowding on the sidewalks, the visual impact in the bay and the impact on what we could call the character or the heritage of the area.”

She added, “It’s going to take a substantial reduction in the number and size of ships down to what people seem to be talking about.”

Councilor Joe Minutolo said the town should honor visit that are already on the books.

But Goldthwait noted that, with 2022 already looming as a record year, “if the town was unhappy about the level in the past couple of years, they’re going to be seriously unhappy if it’s going up that much in the next couple of years.”

She continued, “Are we willing to simply say, ‘Well, we’re stuck with this number?’ We’re going to have 50,000 more people than our previous highest ever.”

Hochman said, “If we dictate to the cruise ship industry and say, ‘No, you can’t come’ and they already have a booking, that’s where we have a problem. I want to ask them those questions.”

Councilor Erin Cough suggested that congestion at the town wharf, where ship tenders land their passengers, might be relieved by limiting the number of tour buses that queue to pick up passengers. 

At the council’s regular meeting the following evening, Eben Salvatore, chairman of the town’s Cruise Ship Committee, said it would be useful to get a better understanding of how many passengers actually get off the ships.

“Only so many people get off at any one time,” he said. “’Four-thousand-passenger ship’ is a big headline. But does anyone know how many people actually put their sneakers on the sidewalk? Understanding that will help us get to these lower numbers that we’re seeking.”

Salvatore suggested a useful approach might be a combination of reduction in numbers and a scheduling reconfiguration — perhaps spreading calls more evenly through the year.

Councilors agreed it would be useful to model the numbers to see what various reductions and reconfigurations could achieve relative to what the community would like to see. The council scheduled another workshop on Aug. 10 to work out recommendations to send to the cruise ship committee. 

In her letter, Cruise Lines International Association’s Craighead said the town of Bar Harbor would do well to implement recommendations from a 2019 study, “Cruise Tourism and Traffic Congestion in Bar Harbor: Improving the Visitor and Resident Experience.” 

The report was commissioned by the council and the recommendations were designed to manage visitor flow and relieve congestion.

Some of the measures, designed to improve pedestrian and vehicle flow at town wharf, were deployed in the summer of 2019. Those measures, “made a difference” and there remains an opportunity “to highlight the positive benefit,” she said.

The roll-out of the measures was halted by the pandemic.

‘Unconstitutional taking’

Craighead went on to discuss impacts to the industry if the town implements scheduling changes on short notice.

The town usually provides cruise lines with 18-month advance notice of changes to fees or other adjustments affecting cruise operations. 

Scheduling of port calls is a complex, multi-party process involving not only arrangements for the vessels themselves but also commitments to vendors, suppliers and service providers, she said.

Sudden cancellation of one port call can also have knock-on effects on previous or subsequent port calls, she continued.

“To the extent a local government acts arbitrarily to compromise port access by a federally authorized vessel, the diminution in value of the vessel can amount to an unconstitutional taking by the local government,” she wrote. “The lines make major design and investment decisions involving millions of dollars based on projections about the accessibility of ports in certain ranges to existing and projected vessels.

“An action by a local government or port that places the port off-limits to a cruise vessel fully compliant with all federal and international requirements and eligible to operate in the maritime commerce of the United States can dramatically diminish the value of the vessel over its lifetime and can amount to an unconstitutional taking by the local government.”

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