A cruise ship off Frenchman's Bay in Bar Harbor. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Some Maine ports are seeing a sharp uptick in interest from cruise lines in response to Bar Harbor’s cruise ship passenger restrictions passed by voters last year. 

Though Bar Harbor’s 2023 cruise ship schedule remains unchanged for now, some cruise lines are already making contingency plans by reaching out to other ports like Eastport, Rockland and Portland, said Sarah Flink, executive director of Cruise Maine.

Eastport, Bar Harbor and Portland are currently the only ports in the state with the certification and customs process in place to be the first port of entry for foreign-flagged ships, which account for nearly all cruise ships coming to port along the Maine coast. Rockland’s harbor does not have a customs process, but can accept foreign-flagged vessels after they’ve docked in another U.S. port.

“The ramifications of Bar Harbor’s decision are certainly rippling through the industry,” Eastport Port Director Chris Gardner said.

The interest from cruise lines looking to dock in Eastport has doubled, Gardner said. The port has 17 visits planned for this year already. Gardner said this recent increased attention is a big, positive step forward for the Down East city.

“Eastport has been long trying to grow itself in the cruise ship industry,” he said. “We realize that they are a vital piece of our economy.”

But other ports, including Bucksport and Searsport, also are being approached about the possibility of receiving ships in the future as well, Flink said. Those ports are considering developing the necessary infrastructure to be ports of call as well, she said.

Searsport Town Manager James Gillway said the Select Board will discuss a proposal from one company at its regular meeting on Tuesday. The port would require certification from the Coast Guard in order to take the vessel, Gillway said, which would open the doors for future international cruises, but that hinges on the Select Board’s decision.

“That will kind of tell us whether we want to get involved, or pull the plug,” Gillway said. 

Flink said Cruise Maine is planning to conduct a study on the long-term impact the Bar Harbor ordinance could have on the state’s ports overall. In the meantime, her work involves helping ports like Portland and Rockland that are interested in taking on more cruise ships this year, and helping other ports in preparation for a surge in demand down the line.

“Step number one is to get a better handle on quantifying what it does mean for the state of Maine as a whole,” Flink said. “Step number two is to support the other ports that are already seeing some increases.”

The total number of cruise ship passengers scheduled to disembark in Bar Harbor in 2022 was around 272,000 at the start of the season, Flink said, though the numbers vary depending on cancellations. She said that number is roughly the same as it was before the pandemic. 

In November, a citizen-led initiative to cap the number of cruise ship passengers disembarking in Bar Harbor was passed by voters and would reduce the total number to 1,000 per day, less than a third of what town officials had originally proposed. Several local businesses filed suit in federal court to challenge the ordinance, meaning it has not yet gone into effect.

Bar Harbor could see a 95 percent reduction in daily passengers if the ordinance goes into effect, Flink said. It’s presently on hold, pending the legal challenge. That means cruise lines would potentially need to make new itineraries for hundreds of thousands of passengers, she said. 

Other communities like Belfast and Camden haven’t seen the same uptick in interest, officials said, but that’s partly due to hesitancy over large numbers of visitors arriving to their downtown areas from the boats.

Gardner in Eastport said the city’s port facilities are already able to accommodate the potential influx, but the bigger challenge will be building up the island’s business community so it will be able to handle the increase in visitors.

“You have to grow that tourism offering on the island to meet the opportunity for what the cruise ships are looking for,” Gardner said. “It’s one thing to tie them up, but when they get off the boat they want to find things that help showcase the community that they’re visiting.” 

The city likely won’t see a large influx of cruise ships until at least 2025, Gardner said, but local officials are already working with its chamber of commerce and local businesses to prepare.

“If Bar Harbor’s decision allows Eastport’s star to shine a little brighter, then good for us,” he said.

Braeden Waddell is a reporter covering Belfast and Waldo County. He grew up in Waldoboro and joined the Bangor Daily News in 2023 after working as an associate producer for National Public Radio. He graduated...