In a move aimed at reducing tourism’s negative effects on Bar Harbor, the town council on Tuesday eliminated the town’s cruise ship committee.
While some members of the council defended the purpose of the committee and the efforts of those on it, they acknowledged it had outlived its purpose, which was to make recommendations to the town on how to manage the cruise industry’s growth in Bar Harbor.
With a majority of residents chafing at how the number of annual cruise ship visits to Bar Harbor has increased over the past 30 years — and with the town dealing with a federal lawsuit over the matter — the council unanimously agreed that the town should change its approach.
As affordable housing on Mount Desert Island becomes increasingly scarce, and as summertime congestion gets worse, the town instead should have a tourism impact committee to try to better balance the needs of tourists and residents, councilors said.
“We need to be ready to jump in and figure out an overall holistic sustainable tourism plan,” said council member Matt Hochman. “I think a management committee is the only way we can do that.”
Councilor Earl Brechlin said the reason the cruise ship committee was created a dozen or so years ago was to help the town manage the flow of passengers to shore and through the town. But representation on the committee was heavily tilted toward tourism businesses.
“That went along fine until people got the perception, correctly I think in many instances, that the committee was operating at cross purposes to what the community wanted,” he said. “
Brechlin also endorsed the idea of the town creating a tourism committee so it could try to manage the impact of tourism as a whole, and not just the part that involves passenger ships.
“Cruise ships [aren’t] the Great Satan in overcrowding or too much activity in Bar Harbor or too much impact on resources,” Brechlin said. “I think we need to look at all of that at the same time.”
A couple of residents who work in the tourism industry defended the committee’s work and said it was always up to the town to accept or reject its recommendations.
Eben Salvatore, director of operations for Bar Harbor Resorts, said businesses like his involved in bringing passengers ashore and transporting them around the island will still discuss those operations with each other and work with the police department to manage the flow of tour buses at the waterfront. But without that work happening under the umbrella of a town committee, residents will be left out of decision making.
“The public won’t have the ability to weigh in the way they have been,” Salvatore said.
But for resident Anna Durand, the interests of the committee members and the interests of most Bar Harbor voters have drifted too far apart for the town to keep the committee going.
“Their goals are not our goals as a town,” she said. “Maybe they were back in the day, but I think ours have evolved.”
Though the council voted 6-0 to eliminate the town’s cruise ship committee, it did not take any action on establishing a broader tourism panel. That consideration is expected to occur at a later date, after town officials have had time to draft a proposal on how it would be composed and what its role would be.