An imminent change in the way U.S. Customs officials plan to clear cruise ship passengers this summer continues to inspire anxious meetings, strongly worded e-mails and logistic-laden telephone calls. The nightmare everyone is trying to avoid is the one where Maine’s float-in tourists, faced with long lines resulting from new disembarkment procedures, might never leave their breakfast buffets and deck chairs this summer in order to spend money on lobster bakes, blueberry-embellished crockery and guided tours to Acadia, Kennebunkport and L.L. Bean.

In past seasons, Customs officials typically traveled with these cruise-ship passengers, sailing with them from Nova Scotia, allowing ample time for inspections and clearing. This summer, however, the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) office of the Department of Homeland Security plans to ferry out from Maine’s shoreline, boarding ships either midstream – as in about 45 minutes prior to docking – or at anchor. Visitors cruising Maine’s ports with little time to shop and sightsee might now anticipate tedious hours queuing up just to stroll off their comfortable cruise ship. The fear, of course, is that huge numbers of these tourists will decide this effort is simply too bothersome.

“Three thousand people pulling into port for eight to ten hours who need to spend three hours in Customs – that’s a no brainer,” sums up Sean Moody, of Chase Leavitt, in Portland, ship’s agents whose job it is to work with cruise lines on the port side, coordinating government officials, CBP, the Coast Guard, arranging everything from tugboats to the laundry list of requirements accompanying each particular vessel.

Cruise ship visits brought 132,340 passengers through Maine’s eight ports of call in 2003; cruise ship passengers and crews spent nearly $31 million in direct purchases in Maine, and the industry supported 571 jobs that paid more than $16 million in income in 2003. At least half of these tourists are Americans traveling on international ships required to sail first to Canada before then heading into any Maine port, in compliance with the Jones Act, a series of laws first enacted in the 1920s, which among another things required that only American-owned ships transport goods and passengers between American ports.

“I’ve heard that Customs wants to put a gate on the pier,” offers Charlie Phippen, harbormaster for Bar Harbor.

“There is no space on the dock in Bar Harbor, though,” notes Dick Walker, CBP Area Port Director, based in Bangor. “Bar Harbor isn’t Boston – we have legal requirements and physical restrictions and what will work for a 250-passenger ship, and a 3,000-passenger ship is quite different.”

Meanwhile, Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe’s office continues to put pressure on all interested parties to find solutions sooner rather than later. “Having passengers wait on board ship for two to four hours, while the ship is in port, to be screened by CBP, would translate into a grave loss for the Maine economy,” Snowe wrote to CBP Commissioner Robert Bonner in March. “Since most cruise ship stops last eight to twelve hours, a delay of two to four hours will not only hurt local merchants, but it could make our ports of call less attractive to the cruise lines.”

One solution under serious consideration is rating passengers in order of priority, which generates even more contentions. Cruise ships could pre-identify those passengers who have booked group tours, so Customs officials might offer them streamlined disembarkation – “so those people are not looking at their watches, saying their bus is leaving,” explains Janet Rapaport, a spokeswoman for CBP.

On the other hand, the very notion of queuing up passengers according to port itinerary might generate another category of highly cranky tourists, particularly those wishing to roam around port at their leisure. “You don’t want to penalize passengers just because they don’t want to buy a tour,” muses Moody at Chase Leavitt.

“There’s ongoing dialogue and discussions,” stresses CBP’s Walker. “We still have six to eight weeks before the first ships come and won’t become inundated before late August, early September.”