The Bar Harbor Town Council voted unanimously to cap the number of cruise ship passengers allowed ashore in the town per day. Whereas previous regulations only limited the number of cruise ships in the harbor, the new regulations say between 3,500 and 3,700 people can disembark each day in the summer months and 5,500 people can disembark during the spring and fall shoulder seasons. Cruise ship workers will not be counted toward the cap.

But town planner Anne Kreig stopped short of calling the new regulations a “limit” on cruise ship passengers.
“We might be allowing more,” she said.

The old regulations allowed a maximum of two cruise ships in the harbor at one time, she said, while the passenger cap may allow for three. Town officials said the new regulations give more flexibility to accommodate a greater number of smaller-sized cruise ships; the rules also give the town a regulatory tool to deal with the anticipated construction of mega-ships in the future.

Bar Harbor is by far the most popular cruise ship port of call in Maine.  In 2006, the most recent year of information available, the town outpaced the second-most popular port, Portland, in cruise calls by nearly a three-to-one margin. And Bar Harbor’s popularity is expected to increase, from 73 calls in 2006 to an anticipated 106 calls in the coming year.  

The lower summer passenger cap of 3,500 visitors reflects the realities of summer traffic in the harbor, Kreig said. Bar Harbor’s waters must fit in lobster boats, whale watching ships, The Cat superferry, bands of sea kayakers and cruise ships.

“It’s harder to accommodate two large ships actually in the summertime,” she said.

But the real bottleneck can occur once the passengers have come ashore.  When cruise ships come to town, it takes a small fleet of buses to move them to Acadia National Park and around the rest of Mount Desert Island. As the number of cruise ships has gone up, so to has the number of complaints about bus noise, traffic, and pollution. The passenger cap was the first idea put into practice from the town’s Cruise Tourism Destination Plan. Many other suggestions deal with future regulations for the bus fleet, including establishing a formal bus parking area, limiting engine idling, and encouraging bus companies to switch to cleaner-burning fuels.  

Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce executive director Chris Fogg said he sees more opportunities than challenges arising from the growing cruise ship trade.  Cruise ships have given life to downtown shops that used to shutter after the traditional three-month tourist season, he said.
“They used to say you could fire a cannon down Main Street after Memorial Day and not hit anyone,” Fogg said.

The cruise ship trade pumped more than $13 million into the Bar Harbor economy in 2005, according to a University of Maine study, much of it during the shoulder season. And Fogg said another study showed one in three ship passengers will travel back to Bar Harbor for a longer vacation after a cruise visit.

“It’s really a familiarization tour of Bar Harbor,” he said.  

Currently, cruise ship tourists only account for five percent of the town’s tourist business, Fogg said; it’s just a very visible five percent when ships like the QE2 cruise into town. Still, he said, town officials are aware that growing cruise ship traffic could overwhelm the town in the future if left unregulated. The new passenger cap was a move to “try and establish capacity,” he said.

Reaction to the new regulations has been mixed within the cruise ship industry, said Amy Powers, executive director for Cruise Maine, an organization that helps coordinate cruise ship activity in the state.

“Some people think it’s going to be limiting,” she said.

In the town council minutes, one council member mentioned that the American Association of Port Authorities was against passenger caps, but an association representative declined to take an official position during a telephone interview. A representative from the Cruise Lines Industry Association also declined to take a position on the matter.  Bar Harbor isn’t the first town to cap cruise ship numbers, and Powers said most cruise line executives understand that such caps will be part of doing business in the future.      

The new rules are slated to take effect in 2010. Cruise lines typically book 18 months in advance, and brochures for the 2009 season are printed already. Town officials plan to revisit the new rules after the next two tourist seasons to see if there will be need for revisions.