Bar Harbor’s 2022 tourist season officially got underway Thursday when a large cruise ship docked in Frenchman Bay for the first time in two and a half years.
The Norwegian Pearl arrived in the bay early Thursday and dropped anchor on the northside of Bar Island. The location hid it from the view of downtown Bar Harbor, where millions of tourists throng each summer to enjoy the coastal Maine scenery and visit nearby Acadia National Park. Gray skies and chilly, wet weather hung in the air as passengers — some of whom said they had no idea the ship would stop in Bar Harbor on the way back to Boston from Bermuda — were ferried in tenders to the waterfront and walked up a gangway into town.
Despite the ship’s muted arrival and the relative quiet that greeted passengers in the downtown village, where many businesses aren’t yet open for the season, it was a welcome development for some local businesses.
“It’s nice to see stores and restaurants that weren’t open yesterday open today,” Eben Salvatore, director of operations for Bar Harbor Resorts, said as passengers arrived at the company’s Harborside Hotel marina. “It’s the last piece of the puzzle to recover from the pandemic.”
Julie Malloy, a buyer for Cadillac Mountain Sports, said that the company’s Bar Harbor stores typically get customers off cruise ships, both passengers and crew members. She said she is glad that cruise ships are coming back to the town for the first time since the global COVID-19 pandemic hit Maine in March 2020.
“I think it’s good,” she said. “It’s been nice to see more people in town today.”
But Bar Harbor remains at a critical point, considering how big a presence cruise ships should have in the small town’s future.
The issue of cruise ship traffic in Bar Harbor has come under great scrutiny in recent years. The volume of passengers that arrive in town on busy cruise ship days, especially in the fall, could overwhelm businesses and streets in a town that’s already been grappling with unprecedented tourism traffic.
Last summer, more than half of respondents to a town survey said that cruise ships have a negative overall impact on the town. Bar Harbor officials have said they are committed to reducing local cruise ship traffic in the future.
But it isn’t going to happen this summer. Cruise ships typically book their itineraries at least 18 months in advance. This past winter when the elected Town Council considered tightening limits for 2022, they were told both by legal counsel and cruise industry representatives that such last-minute restrictions likely would be challenged in court. Instead, the council has decided to pursue permanent limits for the 2023 season.
Though Bar Harbor has not had any large cruise ship visits since 2019, the town has experienced a surge in tourists since late summer of 2020. Acadia National Park also topped 4 million visits in 2021, its busiest year ever.
By adding more than 150 cruise ship visits to the mix this year, some fear the town’s tourism industry will face even greater strain than it did last summer, when a widespread labor shortage made it difficult for many shops and restaurants to handle the increased crowds.
On Thursday, however, there were no crowds to be seen on Bar Harbor’s rainy streets, even as tenders ferried Norwegian Pearl passengers to shore. The ship can carry more than 2,300 passengers, but some who came ashore said that it was maybe half full.
“There’s so much room in there,” Donna Wojtowicz of Wells, Maine, said of the ship. “They treat you like kings and queens.”
It was the fourth cruise Wojtowicz and her husband Rick have been on, but the first since the pandemic. They said they had to have both proof of vaccination and recent negative lab tests to be allowed on the cruise and to enter Bermuda. All the ship’s crew members also are vaccinated and masked.
“They don’t want to take any chances,” Rick Wojtowicz said. “We feel very safe.”
Eileen Scherer, 71, of Attleboro, Massachusetts was on her first cruise ever, traveling with her daughter Alison Scherer, who has been on several. The mother-daughter duo said the ship’s vaccine and testing requirements also have made them feel safe on the cruise.
The bigger issue for Eileen Scherer was the fact that she did not feel she was dressed warmly enough to walk around in the wet, 40-degree weather in Bar Harbor. Like the Wojtowiczes, she and her daughter both said they also did not know they were going to stop in Bar Harbor on the way back to Boston.
“We only packed for Bermuda, and I’ve never been to Bar Harbor,” Eileen said. “Otherwise, I think the cruise has been wonderful. I’m enjoying it.”