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Nearly 200 cruise ships with a total capacity of almost 300,000 passengers have booked visits to Bar Harbor this year.
The bookings are part of a continuing upward trend that has the Bar Harbor Town Council concerned about downtown traffic congestion and other impact from the ships, particularly along the waterfront where tenders bring passengers to shore and tour buses line up to meet them.
At the council’s Feb. 4 meeting, several councilors said they’ve heard complaints from residents about difficulty accessing the waterfront and general sidewalk crowding when the cruise ships are in port.
“One thing I’ve heard from people is the town pier and West Street are inaccessible to them on cruise ship days and that it can be difficult for fishermen to access the pier and for local residents to access that part of town when cruise ships are in,” said Councilor Gary Friedmann.
“I’ve heard the same comments: ‘When the cruise ships are in, I don’t get to enjoy the amenities the town has to offer because we basically sold ourselves to the industry on those days,’” said Councilor Joe Minutolo.
But some said they’ve heard from downtown businesses that are happy to have the trade.
“I think a lot of businesses have come to count on cruise ship business, especially in the shoulder season,” said Councilor Matthew Hochman.
In 2019, 177 ships with a total capacity of 275,198 passengers reserved visits to Bar Harbor. Another 18 ships, with capacity for nearly 24,000 passengers, canceled visits, citing poor weather.
The 2020 season has 197 ships booked with a total capacity of 296,046 passengers. The first arrival is April 25; the last is Nov. 3. Four maiden voyage calls are expected.
In 1999, the numbers were 39 ships and 25,485 passengers.
In a previous meeting, the council set a goal to work with the cruise ship committee and other stakeholders to create a plan to reduce congestion downtown and along the waterfront.
“This is a good time to start that discussion,” said Friedmann.
Most passengers arrive on shore, via tender, at the town wharf, which was originally deigned as a working pier for fishermen and other maritime activities. Vehicles there today includes day-trippers' cars, large motor coaches, and minibuses, vans and other vehicles that provide shoreside tours for cruise ship passengers, as well as the Island Explorer shuttle bus.
Last July, the council received a report, commissioned by the Cruise Line Industry Association at the council’s request, on the traffic congestion and recommendations to alleviate it.
That resulted in strategies implemented in September and October by the Bar Harbor Police Department on a trial basis, such as controlled vehicle entry to the wharf area and reconfigured traffic flow along the narrow streets that lead to the area.
That process is just getting started, Cruise Ship Committee Chairman Eben Salvatore told the council. He added that he met with Police Chief James Willis earlier this month with the goal of fine-tuning some of the trial measures for implementation in 2020.
“I think the changes made at the pier, and making it so the people were dispersed better, made that area of town feel better on cruise ship days,” said Councilor Erin Cough. “It isn’t necessarily the number of ships or the number of people, but how they’re being dispersed.”
Additional considerations include a new transportation plan from Acadia National Park that will require concession operators to use smaller touring vehicles in the park of no more than 38 feet long.
The goal is to have the smaller buses on the road for 2021. Upon implementation, larger concession motor coaches will eventually be phased out and no longer permitted on the Loop Road or up Cadillac Mountain. Demand from cruise ships accounts for about 80% of concessionary tour bus traffic, but it’s expected the smaller vehicles will still be able to accommodate that demand.
That means there will be smaller, and more, tour buses, which will need a staging area near the cruise ship landing, councilors said.
The plan, said Salvatore, is to draft a policy that includes staging areas and specific staging times for tour bus operators. The concept of there being an increase in the number of smaller buses, he noted, depended on whether bus operators were going to buy smaller buses. If not, he said, that might mean an increase in pedestrian traffic as passengers explore downtown on foot.
Bar Harbor caps the number of cruise ship passengers allowed onshore every day: 3,500 passengers per day in July and August; in the fall and spring months, the cap is 5,500 passengers per day.
If the caps were fully utilized, said Salvatore, the town would see 800,000 landed passengers overall during the cruise season.
Although the number of landed passengers increased 11% from 2019 to 2020, Salvatore noted that the actual number of landed passengers is nowhere near that number. In 2019, 177 ships had a total capacity of 275,198 passengers; he said that studies show that not all passengers go ashore.
“If you met your cap every day for the entire summer, you’re at 800,000 people at 5,000 per day,” he said. “The ships couldn’t meet that if they wanted to. So you’re nowhere near 50% now.”
But, said Minutolo, “When you say we haven’t even met 50% of our cap, that scares the heck out of me.”
He added, “When it was 100 ships, people said, ‘Wow, it’s really busy but it’s okay now.’ We’re in the 200 range. People are going, ‘This is s getting a little extreme.’”
“You have to think about it in context,” responded Salvatore. “If the hotels were all filled from May to October, that would be 12 million people in this town. It’s not realistic to say we could suddenly be at that number.”
“It’s taking over our town,” said Minutolo. “I’d like to see what the citizens’ appetite is for this industry.”
“I think that’s what we’re doing,” said Salvatore. “We said we have to find the balance, and that’s what we’re working on.”
Councilors brought up the possibility of capping the number of ships allowed into port at some point.
Hochman noted the landing area isn’t always busy.
“First thing in the morning when they’re all getting off, it’s busy,” he said. “But go down at lunch and I can get on the pier just fine.”
He added, “One of our biggest problems may not necessarily be that we’re overcrowded, but that we have a town that wasn’t designed for the amount of tourism we get these days, and that we move people terribly.”
“My concern for several months now has been that if the council doesn’t take some action to try get a handle on the most visible sign of growth, which is the cruise ship industry, we’re going to get a backlash in a citizen referendum that’s going to be more draconian,” said Friedmann.
The council voted to ask the cruise ship committee to commission a study that evaluates the impact of cruise ship visits on the quality of life for residents.