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May 5, 2021

Bar Harbor OKs visits by small cruise ship, but questions remain about larger ones

cruise ship and bus File photo / Laurie Schreiber In pre-pandemic years, cruise ship arrivals (like Anthem of the Seas in the background), brought a flurry of tour buses and other activities to Bar Harbor.

The Bar Harbor Town Council on Tuesday approved visits this year by the Independence, a small U.S.-flagged passenger ship owned by American Cruise Lines.

The Independence has 19 visits booked in Bar Harbor from May 24 to Sept. 26. The 215-foot cruise ship carries 100 passengers and 25 crew.

Councilors also began to wrestle with the protocols necessary for larger cruise ships to call on Bar Harbor.

Small ships

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention has approved the trips by American Cruise Lines after vetting its protocols. Visits by larger ships remain on hold pending further instruction from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to a news release from CruiseMaine, which is part of the Maine Office of Tourism.

The Independence will begin its all-Maine itinerary in Portland on May 23 and will make stops in Castine, Belfast, Camden, Rockland, Boothbay Harbor, Bath and Bar Harbor. 

American Cruise Lines also expects to begin operation in June of another one of its small ships, the American Constitution, which accommodates 170 passengers and operates a 10-day New England cruise that begins in Boston with stops at Maine ports.

“With robust protocols in place, and the added benefit of fully vaccinated passengers, these communities will once again be able to freely welcome cruise visitors into their shops, restaurants and attractions,” the release said.

Planning for a potential 2021 cruise season began last December. CruiseMaine spent the past several months working with Maine CDC and a task force made up of representatives for each town, city and private facility involved in cruise operations. 

The group focused on port readiness. Shoreside protocols for all ports visited by American Cruise Lines are nearly complete.

American Cruise Lines was among the first small-ship, domestic lines that resumed passenger operations, with a season that began mid-March out of Jacksonville, Fla. The company now has six vessels operating across eight states, including New England, the Pacific Northwest and Alaska. 

Passenger vaccinations are required.

Large ships

The future of the 2021 season for cruise ships larger than the 250-person threshold set by the federal CDC is uncertain. They are currently prohibited from operating in U.S. waters until being granted a “conditional sailing permit” by the agency. 

That rules out a ship like Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas (in photo), which has a capacity of up to 4,905 passengers and a crew of up to 1,500. In pre-pandemic years, the cruise ship also made stops in Portland. 

So far, the CDC hasn’t provided all of the technical documentation for the larger cruise ships.

“The situation is rapidly evolving, however, as CDC officials and industry representatives work together to adapt to the changing public health situation in the U.S.,” the release said.

The situation is further complicated by the amount of time that cruise lines need to get ready to resume operations. Cruise lines recently announced they require 90 days to get a large ship ready, which puts Maine’s early summer season out of the question. 

“A late summer or fall season remains possible, but without a clear timeline in place, experts consider it unlikely,” the release said.

Bookings for 2022 are strong, the release said.

Bar Harbor

In Bar Harbor, bookings of all other ships aside from the Independence have been canceled through Aug. 26. A smattering of cancellations have been received after that date. But most remain on the books as cruise lines wait for the situation to unfold.

Once a booking is canceled, it can’t be “resurrected,” Harbormaster Charlie Phippen told the council.

Phippen said that, beyond 2021, reservations are rolling in. 

“Recently, I’ve gotten reservations out as far as 2030,” he said.

Some town councilors said the resumption of sailing, even at the small scale of the Independence, was a concern. They said that, when the USCDC approves the resumption of larger cruises, the town should also have plan for deciding whether to accept visits.

“I don’t know if there’s an action we need to take now other than keep it on our radar,” said Councilor Matthew Hochman. “We as a council need to be able to react quickly to a changing situation.”

Sarah Flink, executive director of CruiseMaine, said that larger ships are prohibited from sailing by a federal policy called the “framework for conditional sailing.”

The framework is currently scheduled to remain in place through the end of November, she said.

The “conditional sailing permit” required by the framework applies to each ship for each itinerary, not to a cruise company as a whole, she explained.

For example, if a cruise operator wants to sail from Boston to Bar Harbor and then Canada, the operator has to apply to the CDC for approval of the itinerary. Before making the application, the operator has to get signed agreements with every port on the voyage. 

“So they can’t come to Bar Harbor without an agreement in writing from Bar Harbor,” she said.

Even those ships that are already on the books can’t visit unless they have the agreements and the permit, she said.

Town Manager Cornell Knight said the council would likely be the authorizing agent in that situation.

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