After its busiest tourism season on record in 2021, Bar Harbor is looking to rein in the number of cruise ships that visit the town in 2022.
The possibility of getting a record 180 cruise ship visits next summer and fall worries some local officials and residents. This year’s surge in tourists in Bar Harbor happened despite having no visits from large ships.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and prohibitions on ships visiting Canada — where large ships are going to or coming from when they stop in Bar Harbor — resulted in only a few small ships visiting Bar Harbor since 2019.
Last summer, results of a town survey about local cruise ship visits showed that most respondents believed it has had a negative impact on Bar Harbor in recent years. Since getting the results, members of the town council have been considering ways to address those concerns.
On Tuesday they decided to set a goal of reducing the number of large ship visits next year to approximately 110, a more than 38 percent reduction from the 180 that have been scheduled.
The council also decided to hire a lawyer who specializes in maritime law to see what kind of restrictions the town can impose on cruise ship visits.
The first cruise ship is scheduled to arrive on April 14 — roughly 16 weeks from now.
“The closer we get to when the first ship comes, the stronger the argument that they can’t do anything this year [to cut back on visits],” Councilor Jill Goldthwait said.
The issue of trying to control the number of tourists who visit Bar Harbor each year goes beyond cruise ships, but the town has no mechanism in place to limit the number of tourists who arrive by land.
The town controls scheduling for two cruise ship anchorage spots in Frenchman Bay, and has set a cap on the number of cruise ship passengers that can come ashore on any given day, but it has not set a limit on how many cruise ships can visit each year.
Acadia National Park attracted a record number of visits this year, topping 4 million. If 2022 proves to be another busy year for tourists arriving by land, adding another quarter million or so tourists from cruise ships could worsen things.
“It was not fun,” Jeff Dobbs, chairman of the town council, said earlier this month, noting that this summer many local restaurants were understaffed and still had lines of waiting customers outside their doors every night.
If cruise ships had been part of the mix, especially at a typical rate of nearly two per day in September and October, “it would have been impossible,” he added.
In 2019, Bar Harbor had roughly 170 cruise ship visits, and 270,000 cruise ship passengers funneled through the downtown waterfront. That is nearly an 800 percent increase in annual cruise ship traffic since 1990, when the town had only 22 cruise ship visits.
Michael McGarry, an executive with industry group Cruise Lines International Association, told the council earlier this month that cruise companies are willing to adjust to help ensure that the volume of ships that visit Bar Harbor each year is manageable by the town and acceptable to local residents.
He said that cruise firms plan their itineraries roughly 18 months in advance, and so making adjustments to the 2023 season is more realistic than making adjustments to next year’s schedule.
“We do want to be constructive partners with Bar Harbor,” McGarry said. “At this time though, changing the 2022 schedule would be very disruptive.”
Councilor Matthew Hochman noted the urgency that many residents feel in trying to reduce how many ships visit Bar Harbor each summer.
“I understand many people want us to move on this right now,” he said. “Unfortunately, we move at the speed of government and there are a lot of intricacies to it.”