BAR HARBOR — A plan to approve four visits in 2018 by cruise ships that carry more passengers than the town regularly allows in summer months was approved by councilors Tuesday.
Councilors voted 6-1 to approve the plan to exceed the daily passenger cap, which in July and August is 3,500 passengers, on the specific trial dates “to ascertain if this exceedance will make a material difference.”
The town’s Cruise Ship Committee voted 9-1 in December to recommend the council accept reservations from Freedom of the Seas and Anthem of the Seas, which carry up to 4,328 and 4,180 passengers, respectively, on four dates in July and August of 2018.
The town charges cruise ship fees according to passenger capacity, but not all passengers disembark the ship during port visits. The Harbormaster’s office aims to begin collecting data this year on how many people actually come ashore. Anthem of the Seas is tied with two other vessels for fourth place on the list of the world’s largest cruise ships.
Freedom is set to visit on July 2, July 30 and Aug. 28. Anthem of the Seas will be in town Aug. 27. On those dates, cruise committee Chair Eben Salvatore said, town officials will carefully monitor conditions in town to determine the impact of the extra several hundred passengers. It’s a step, he said, toward possibly raising the summer cap, since the trend in the cruise industry is toward bigger ships.
In the spring and fall, the daily passenger cap is 5,500 passengers.
Councilor Clark Stivers emphasized that the exceedances are for these trial dates only, not a “camel’s nose under the tent.” He voted in favor of the plan but said he has heard lots of concern from residents about crowding. The tourist season has more than doubled since he moved here 35 years ago, he said.
“We have to acknowledge that to accept this is to give something up. I don’t think this town does the community thing very well in the downtown in the summer. We have to make sure it’s still a town and not Coney Island.”
In October of last year, the council denied another, larger request to book ships that exceed the summer daily passenger cap of 3,500.
Harbormaster Charlie Phippen created a “port of call summary” form to be completed for each ship visit to track actual number of passengers on board from the ship’s manifest, number of passengers coming ashore, number of passengers on shore excursions and number of crew coming ashore.
By the time the 2018 trial dates arrive, Salvatore said, the town will have much better data about how many people actually get off of ships.
Cruise passengers in the summer, he said, are more likely to be families with children and less likely to take bus tours.
Councilor Matt Hochman was the sole vote against the proposal, saying he would rather wait until numbers from the port of call summary were available.
“I’ve heard concerns about crowding. I don’t think it’s the cruise ships, but I don’t have the data,” he said.
“Cruise ships get blamed for everything because they’re so visible,” Councilor Gary Friedman said, “but we really have to work to determine where the impacts on the town are coming from.”