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Judge Clears Bar Harbor, Maine to Dramatically Limit Cruise Ship Passengers

Bar Harbor, Maine
Cruise ship anchored at Bar Harbor (Ernst Krenger photo - CC BY 3.0)

Published Feb 29, 2024 7:26 PM by The Maritime Executive

 

A U.S. federal judge on Thursday ruled clearing what appears to be the final hurdle in the implementation of a dramatic limit on the number of cruise passengers visiting the popular destination of Bar Harbor, Maine. The decision caps a nearly four-year battle that pitted business owners against residents and at one point town council against citizens as they struggled to find a compromise over the issues related to overtourism. 

A picturesque coastal town with only approximately 5,500 residents, Bar Harbor is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the state. It has long been a stop for cruises to New England and Canada and is popular because it provides access to Arcadia National Park. More than four million tourists a year visit the town.

Residents complained of downtown traffic and all the issues associated with the influx of day visitors from the cruise ships. Some people also argue that it detracts from land-based tourists and hurts hotel occupancy because of the reputation of overcrowding. Businesses that are mostly seasonal to the tourists argued the limits would add to the difficulties of depending on tourists in a season that generally runs from mid or late May to early October. Many of the businesses catering to tourists are closed for the remainder of the year.

The demand for restrictions started to grow in 2020 when cruising was suspended due to the pandemic and led to a series of proposals and debates at the town council. A citizens’ survey showed strong interest in restrictions on cruise ships and in 2022 the town council offered a seasonal plan which they said would spread out the visits and cap daily totals at between 3,500 and 3,700 people. Citizens, however, in November 2022 voted for a cap of just 1,000 passengers a day with other restrictions on cruise ships and the operators of the pier.

Federal Judge Lance Walker on the U.S. District Court for the District of Maine ruled today that the limit on the number of cruise passengers is legal and can be enforced by the town council. He rejected arguments by local businesses, including tour operators and the owner of the pier used to land cruise ship passengers, that the law violated rules on inter-state commerce, maritime law, and the U.S. Constitution. 

The finding highlights that the Bar Harbor law does not favor a particular business, local over out of state, or limit visitors by origin. He recognized the law was in response to the impact of the high volume on the town. The ruling notes Bar Harbor is still open to visitors from out of state or internationally and it does not restrict access for seafarers or passengers to the port. He noted that if the law restricted access it would be a violation.

The town council initially had fought the more stringent restrictions but then turned and argued that it was an issue of home rule. They ended up arguing for the restriction as a right of the town government to set limits, which the judge upheld.

Town officials said they were pleased with the ruling and that they would provide more information after a scheduled town meeting next week. 

Bar Harbor joins a growing number of destinations struggling with large volumes of tourists. Key West, Florida moved to also restrict the number of cruise passengers only to have the state’s governor partially overrule the local government and voters citing the impact on commerce. Residents in Juneau, Alaska have also been calling for limits while Amsterdam in the Netherlands moved to restrict cruise ships from the city center as did Barcelona, Spain. Citing damage to the historic buildings, Venice, Italy required cruise ships to move to a neighboring port.
 

Top photo by Ernst Krenger - CC BY 3.0 license