Bar Harbor Seeking Consensus Policy to Limit Cruise Ships

Bar Harbor seeks consensus to limit cruise ship port calls
Bar Harbor, Maine (CC BY 2.0 / Smudge9000)

Published Dec 17, 2020 8:06 PM by The Maritime Executive

The Town Council in Bar Harbor, Maine, a popular port for cruise ships in the summer and fall, took another step towards possible limitations on future visits. Saying that it was responding to an overwhelming level of outreach from citizens, the council agreed that it needs to review its policies toward cruise ships.

After discussing the issues, the council voted to proceed with a process designed to reach a consensus on the cruise ship policy. The steps will include a mailed survey of residents and a public hearing on the issue of limiting the number of cruise ships and passengers. The goal is to use that to inform a policy that would be voted on in June 2021. 

The council believed that if it did not act on the issue that there was a strong possibility that the citizens might act either through a petition or similar to residents of Key West, Florida who in November voted on a binding public referendum. The Key West residents voted to limit both the size of cruise ships calling at the port as well as the number of people that could come ashore each day. They also approved giving priority to ships with the best environmental records.

At issue in the ports is the long-debated issue of over-tourism and the argument that cruise ship passengers use resources but provide less revenue versus land-based tourists. Cruise industry representatives counter saying that the ships pay port taxes and that passengers often return to destinations they first sample during a cruise. The town council hopes that its actions will provide the basis to create a compromise position between the two points of view.

Bar Harbor has seen dramatic growth in cruise ship visits and the number of passengers. Before the cancelation of the 2020 season, Bar Harbor had expected approximately 200 cruise ship visits ranging from the mega-cruise ships to smaller coastal vessels. The city had the potential to receive more than 300,000 passengers this year, who it was estimated would contribute more than $20 million to the Maine economy. Despite the cruise industry remaining on pause, more than 150 cruise ship calls have already been scheduled for 2021.

One of the concerns that the town council wants to explore in more depth is the revenue contribution from the ships and how a loss of these monies might impact either local taxes or services. The revenues from the cruise ships, it was reported contribute to the cost of the harbormaster’s office, the town’s administrative and financial offices while also contributing to public services, street cleaning, and debt service.

Local businesses are also divided on the cruise ship issue. Restaurants, cafes, bars, and tourist shops receive revenues from the passengers while some businesses say good customers are scared away by too many people in town each day from the cruise ships. 

At a meeting in November, the town council voted to defer any actions into the new year, while also approving a longer-term motion for the town’s cruise ship committee to explore a potential cap on the annual number of cruise ships. The cruise ship task force regularly councils the town council on matters related to cruise ships ranging from fees to water quality but has yet to provide the town council with a response to last month’s motion.