BAR HARBOR — The Town Council chambers sounded like a bargaining table on Tuesday night as members debated potential caps on cruise ship tourism in Bar Harbor.
Since a survey showed that townspeople and business owners found that cruise ship tourism had a negative impact on the community, the council has been trying to find a way to better manage the ships that come to Frenchman Bay.
During a workshop on Tuesday, the council took its first stab at new limits on cruise ship traffic, including caps on the number of days per month that the town would accept cruise ships and daily passenger limits.
“I think everybody here is willing to work on coming up with a compromise and coming up with something that’s an agreeable solution,” said council member Erin Cough.
Currently the town has a cap of 3,500 passengers per day in the high season and 5,500 in the shoulder season and no limit on cruise ship days.
The council talked about potentially limiting July and August to 10 days of cruise ships in harbor per month, and each of those days would only be allowed 1,000 passengers per day. October would drop (from 5,500) to 2,100 passengers per day for 20 days; September for the first half of the month would be 2,100 passengers and only six days; the second half would be 1,500 passengers per day for 12 days.
The council talked about either 2,500 or 3,500 passengers a day in May for 20 or 25 days and 2,100 or 2,500 a day for 15 days in June.
Council Chairman Jeff Dobbs emphasized that the numbers were only a starting point to get the conversation flowing. The council said it would decide at its meeting next week whether to send these potential figures to the Cruise Ship Committee for their input. Because the meeting was a workshop, the council could not take any votes.
Council members did seem in agreement that the season should be shut down between November and April.
The 2022 cruise ship season is currently projected at 292,212 passengers over 118 days with cruise ships. Even council member Matthew Hochman, who believes cruise tourism brings value to town, said he wished to see future annual cruise ship passenger counts down to about 150,000 people a year, or roughly what the town saw in 2016.
The cruise ship industry has said that it wants to work with the town, though it did note that changes could hurt their businesses.
“Amending the existing schedule for this year and 2022 with such short notice will disappoint numerous cruise guests planning to visit Bar Harbor, negatively impact many local businesses that rely on cruise tourism for their livelihoods, and create unforeseeable financial hardship for companies that have long been constructive partners with the town,” Kelly Craighead, the president and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association wrote in a letter to the council.
Planning a cruise itinerary is complex and any changes on what the ports allow can throw a wrench into an entire trip.
Eben Salvatore, the chairman of the Cruise Ship Committee, said that the council’s work on Tuesday was a good start and he was in favor of the month-by-month approach, but in reality, the preliminary figures the council was considering could be the “elimination of the season” based on the size of the ships that come to town, when they travel and where else they run.
“I believe this boxes out most of the ships that want to come to Bar Harbor,” he said.
Salvatore advocated for the creation of a working group with members of the Cruise Lines International Association and his committee and council members. This would give people who better know the complexity of cruise ship scheduling to make suggestions on how to get to the council’s goal.
In a second letter to the council on Monday, Craighead backed the idea, saying it would “serve as a forum for discussion on cruise ship-related matters currently being considered by the Town Council, as well as the development of constructive and practical solutions.”
And while the industry wants to work with the town, the association also previously noted that there could be some legal recourse.
“To the extent a local government acts arbitrarily to compromise port access by a federally authorized vessel, the diminution in value of the vessel can amount to an unconstitutional taking by the local government,” Craighead wrote.
Cruise ship lines make major design and investment decisions based on the accessibility of ports and the value of a vessel could be dramatically diminished if a government placed its port off-limits, she wrote.
Dobbs said he wished to see management strategies used to try and mitigate the 2022 season’s effects while the council implemented a long-term strategy for future seasons, but council member Jill Goldthwait, who has held the hardest line on cruise ship tourism, wanted to see reductions implemented sooner.
“The town is pretty fired up about this issue,” she said. “If we allow the 2022 season to happen the way it’s scheduled, which is about the way 2019 was, people are not going to be happy.”