Bar Harbor voters will decide next month whether to set a new cap on cruise ship passengers.
Two large cruise ships are anchored behind Bar Island in Frenchman's Bay off Bar Harbor on Oct. 3, 2022. The Voyager of the Seas, left, can carry more than 3,800 passengers, while the Nieuw Statendum, right, has the capacity for more than 2,600 people. Credit: Nicole Ogrysko / Maine Public

There wasn’t a cloud in the sky on an early October day in Bar Harbor, and crowds were lining up at the pier to board one of the last tender boats of the day.

The boats were transporting passengers back to one of the two cruise ships anchored behind Bar Island.

Barbara Sansing of Atlanta was headed back to the Royal Caribbean Voyager of the Seas after a day visiting Acadia National Park and downtown Bar Harbor.

“This is our first time,” she said from the line for the tender boat. “We love it, we don’t want to leave.”

Sansing’s cruise ship can carry up to 3,838 passengers. The Nieuw Statendum anchored next to it can carry 2,666, making the day one of the busiest of the year.

But a day like that might never happen again in Bar Harbor, due to more restrictive passenger limits that town officials recently implemented for next season. A citizen’s initiative is on next month’s ballot, and could cut those passenger caps even further.

Three decades ago, Bar Harbor residents turned out at the waterfront to greet incoming cruise ships. But those days are long gone. Cruise ship passengers make up less than 10 percent of visitors to Bar Harbor each year. But as Mount Desert Island’s tourist economy has grown in recent years, cruise ships have become a flashpoint in a years-long debate over how much is too much.

“We don’t need them. We don’t want them,” said Charlie Sidman, the lead organizer behind the citizen’s initiative.

The initiative would cap the number of daily cruise ship passengers at 1,000 through changes to the town’s land use ordinance.

“Too many, and too short a time, and too small a space, and in too precious an environment,” Sidman, who owns an art gallery in town, said of the ships. “I’ve been to McDonald’s also. I don’t want a McDonald’s in the Grand Canyon or on top of Cadillac Mountain.”

But the town’s new plan will limit the number of daily cruise passengers to 3,800 people, with the exception of July and August, when daily caps of 3,500 will be in effect. It will also set monthly caps on cruise ship passengers — 30,000 each during May and June, 40,000 each during July and August, and 65,000 each in September and October. No ships will come in April or November.

“I think it is going to be a difference. I think it’s going to feel better,” said Val Peacock, chair of the Bar Harbor Town Council. “And I think we’ve started a professional conversation with the industry that we can adjust if things are not better.”

Peacock participated in the town’s negotiations with the cruise lines. She said, personally, she would have wanted to see more ship reductions herself. But the town’s plan is a compromise, she acknowledged.

The plan has already drawn criticism from businesses, which question whether they’ll open later or close earlier for the season now that ships will stop coming in April and November.

“If we’re going to limit how people can get here, we probably should just put a gate up at the head of the island and only allow so many cars too, because parking’s an issue,” said Shawn Porter, who owns Little Village gifts with her husband.

“But we haven’t limited the number of cars that are allowed on the island yet,” she said with a laugh.

Porter’s family owns three stores in Bar Harbor. If cruise ship passengers are capped at 1,000 a day, she said they would likely close their small shop closest to the pier.

She estimates that cruise ship passengers account for 25 percent to 30 percent of their business, which has been up and down since the pandemic.

“We shouldn’t be changing anything until we figure out what our new normal is, because since 2020 we don’t have one,” Porter said.

The conversation is also frustrating for Eben Salvatore of Ocean Properties, which owns a few hotels in town and the tender facilities at the pier. The operation at the waterfront has become less chaotic over time, he said, and the flow of passengers and tour buses is better organized.

“Millions of millions of people come to Bar Harbor every year; 200,000 at the most get off a cruise ship and walk around,” Salvatore said. They have a pocketbook in one hand and a pair of sneakers in the other. How much harm can they really do?”

If the citizen’s initiative is approved, town officials worry it will draw legal challenges from the cruise ship industry.

“We’re ready for the fight,” Sidman said. “I think we will win in a courtroom.”

The price of defending itself in court will pale in comparison to the environmental costs the town will pay later if Bar Harbor’s tourism industry is allowed to grow with few limits, he added.

For Shawn Porter, all of the uncertainty is weighing on her and her family. She relies on a busy, seven-month tourist season to pay the bills over a long winter, and the prospect of a 1,000-passenger limit is unnerving, she said.

“For us it means the future for my kids,” Porter said. “My son right now is potentially thinking about carrying this on when we don’t want to anymore, and we’re like, I don’t know, do we sell everything run away, or do we stick it out and see what happens?”

By 3 p.m., the crowds at the pier thinned out. The charter buses were gone, and the last tender boats returned the passengers back to their ships.

Barbara Sansing’s ship was scheduled to head to Portland next, but she’s already planning her return trip.

“I want to come back and stay at one of those hotels,” she said.

Business owners around Bar Harbor said they often meet customers like Sansing, who discover Bar Harbor during a short cruise visit and return another year for a longer stay.

But in the years to come, those who do return could be in for a different experience.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.