The cruise ship Adventure of the Seas rests in Frenchman Bay off downtown Bar Harbor on Monday, July 22, 2019, as a group of tourists stand on a pier and a whale watch boat glides by. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Crystal Cruises has canceled seven cruise ship visits planned for Bar Harbor this summer because of the company’s  reported bankruptcy, but the cancellations aren’t expected to soothe the angst of Bar Harbor residents who feel like their town is besieged on cruise ship days.

There still are more than 150 visits scheduled for 2022, and the town council has decided it lacks the legal authority to force cruise companies to cancel reservations.

This week the council voted 6-1 to take no action to try to reduce cruise ships visits this year, with many councilors citing the likelihood of an unsuccessful court battle with cruise ship companies if they tried to impose any such limits only two months before the first ship, the Norwegian Pearl, is scheduled to arrive in Frenchman Bay.

The council met in executive session last month with Camden lawyer William “Sandy” Welte, who specializes in maritime law, to discuss what sort of legal authority the town has to restrict local cruise ship traffic.

Instead, the council voted unanimously to have Town Manager Kevin Sutherland, councilors Jill Goldthwait and Val Peacock, and other town staff to negotiate with industry representatives for reductions in 2023.

“I know the community is upset about 2022, but I think we lost that chance a year ago,” Sutherland said, citing the timing needed to negotiate over ship schedules that sometimes are set 18 months in advance.

Councilor Gary Friedmann proposed cutting back cruise ship traffic this year by 30 percent. The council has discussed the expected return of cruise ships on many occasions, and though all members have said they agree cruise ship traffic needs to be cut back, Joe Minutolo and other councilors agreed with Sutherland, saying that it is now too late to legally enact any reductions for this summer.

“We’ve got a complete failure, as far as what we’ve been doing,” Minutolo said. “[For] 2023, we’ve got to move the needle. It’s time. This has gone on way too long.”

There have been no visits by large cruise ships to Bar Harbor since the pre-pandemic summer of 2019, but last year there was a dramatic increase in tourists who arrived in Bar Harbor by land, resulting in the highest-ever yearly total of estimated visits to Acadia National Park. Acadia’s estimated number of visits it had in 2021 exceeded 4 million, easily surpassing the prior annual record of 3.5 million visits in 2017.

Local residents fear that 2022 will be a repeat of last summer, when the surge in tourists overwhelmed many local businesses that struggled to find employees — and that it will be made even harder to manage by reintroducing cruise ships into the mix.

The cruise ships scheduled to visit this year could bring as many as 295,000 passengers to Bar Harbor. That’s a fraction of the 4 million or so visitors who arrive by land, but still the industry has an outsize impact on the town, especially on autumn days when as many as three ships might be in Bar Harbor at the same time, many residents have said.

The town has no way to reduce the number of tourists who show up each summer in cars, campers or buses, but it can set limits on cruise ships, which greatly add to congestion downtown as tenders ferry passengers back and forth to ships anchored in the bay, and as tour buses line up at the waterfront to carry passengers into the national park.

The town has no yearly limits on cruise ship visits, but it does have daily passenger limits of 3,500 in July and August, when tourist season is at its peak, and 5,500 in May, June, September and October.

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.

When Bar Harbor voters cast ballots in town council elections last June, they rejected candidates who were viewed as favoring the cruise ship industry, and instead reelected incumbents who have voiced support for reducing the impact that the cruise industry has on the town.

In 2019, Bar Harbor had roughly 170 cruise ship visits, and 270,000 cruise ship passengers who were funneled through the downtown waterfront. That is nearly an 800 percent increase since 1990, when the town had only 22 cruise ship visits.

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....