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Updated: July 20, 2021

Half of Bar Harbor survey respondents enjoyed 2020 tourism season without cruise ships

bar chart Courtesy / Pan Atlantic Research Nearly half of a large tranche of survey respondents reacted positively to the 2020 season without cruise ships.

Bar Harbor businesspeople and residents poured out in droves to answer an opinion survey about the scores of cruise ships that typically call on their port.

Of the nearly 1,400 respondents, over half had negative things to say about the cruise ship industry, although other survey participants said they appreciated the ships' economic contribution to the community.

In January, Pan Atlantic Research, a marketing research and consulting firm in Portland, was commissioned by the town of Bar Harbor to conduct research with year-round and seasonal residents, property owners, and business owners to gauge opinion about cruise ship tourism. 

The objective was to provide data to guide the council in setting limits on cruise ship visitation over the next seven years.

Big turnout

The report, completed in June, is based on an atypically high response rate.

Pan Atlantic had targeted 400 to 500 responses to allow for sufficient sample size. Instead, its final data set was 1,378 responses.

“This is a very high response level to a survey of this nature given the size of the overall target population,” according the report, referencing Bar Harbor’s 2020 population of 5,611. 

Bar Harbor is by far Maine’s largest cruise ship port.

bar chart with numbers
Courtesy / Pan Atlantic Research
Many respondents said cruise ships brought too many debarking passengers to town.

The goal of the survey was to evaluate the perceived impacts and challenges of cruise ship tourism on the town’s quality of life and economy, and to solicit input for future management and/or limitation of cruise ships.

Survey participants were also asked to provide feedback regarding the 2019 season, when Bar Harbor hosted 159 cruise ships that had capacity for about 250,000 passengers; and the 2020 season, which was slated for nearly 200 ships that had capacity for nearly 300,000 passengers but was ultimately zeroed out.

In 1999, the numbers were 39 ships and 25,485 passengers.

By December, the Bar Harbor Town Council had received dozens of communications about the impacts and benefits of cruise ship visits on the community and local economy. Some residents called for a permanent ban. Many wanted the number of cruise ship visits scaled back, while others said the ships are important to the economy.

The idea for the survey resulted from those discussions.

Negative vs. positive

Just over half of respondents said cruise ship tourism has more negatives than positives for Bar Harbor, particularly from the quality-of-life standpoint and a general sense that the industry detracts from the town’s image and attractions.

Among the top concerns were pedestrian and vehicle congestion, limited parking availability and environmental and pollution impacts. 

word bubbles
Courtesy / Pan Atlantic Research
Some commenters said the lack of cruise ships in 2020 contributed to business troubles. Courtesy / Pan Atlantic Research

But a quarter to a third of respondents viewed the industry favorably. Almost half said the industry provided positive economic impact through visitor spending and through passenger service and port development fees paid to the town. Business owners in particular were more likely to rate the effects as important.

In general, business owners and seasonal residents were more inclined to be positive than year-round residents on the cruise ship business. 

Spending by cruise ship passengers contributes approximately $20 million of annual revenue to local businesses, approximately 380 full-time, part-time and seasonal jobs, and approximately $5.4 million in labor income annually, according to a 2017 report by Todd Gabe, a professor at the University of Maine’s school of economics.

In 2019, the town of Bar Harbor collected about $1 million in passenger service and port development fees. About half of the money was spent on direct or indirect costs associated with cruise ships and half was spent on capital improvements or added to the town fund balance, offsetting some property taxes.

2019 versus 2020

Nearly two-thirds of respondents said that, in 2019, Bar Harbor had too many cruise ships in the harbor, and too many passengers getting off the ships.

For half of respondents, the summer of 2020, when the industry abruptly halted, was “purely positive” due to less foot and traffic congestion, better access to downtown shops and facilities, better overall quality of life, cleaner environment and better harbor vistas.

word bubbles
Courtesy / Pan Atlantic Research
Other commenters said 2020 was a pleasant reminder of earlier years.

Year-round residents, seasonal residents and business owners broadly agreed on ways to improve the industry’s management going forward. Suggestions included reducing the overall number of ships per season, the maximum ship size and the number of ships per day. Stemming from tendering and disembarking that primarily take place at the town’s congested downtown wharf, another top suggestion was to move those operations to another location. 

Advocates for banning cruise ships entirely were 10% of year-round residents, 7% of seasonal residents and 8% of business owners.

The report is on the council’s agenda at its regular meeting tonight, July 20. For more information, click here.

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