BAR HARBOR — The effects of cruise ship visitation here have been measured from a lot of angles: water quality, economic impact, sidewalk congestion and more.
But last week, the Town Council agreed another angle would be helpful: Councilors asked for a study of how ship visitation impacts the local population.
“People are like, ‘When cruise ships are in, I don’t get a chance to go and eat my bologna sandwich down on the pier,’” Councilor Joe Minutolo said. “‘I don’t get to enjoy those amenities that this town has to offer because we’ve basically sold ourselves to this industry on those days.’”
The conversation came in the context of discussion of the annual report submitted by the town Cruise Ship Committee. Councilors agreed to ask the committee to “direct their efforts towards visitor impact studies on the local population.”
Committee Chairman Eben Salvatore, and several councilors, argued that cruise ship visitors are a very small fraction, perhaps five percent, of the total number of tourists in Bar Harbor during the season.
“It’s not the cruise ships that are causing the tipping point we’ve heard about,” he said. “The math, and the reality, doesn’t add up to the perception.”
He said the committee’s work focuses on how to balance the needs of the community with the industry’s requests. A congestion study requested by the council and funded by cruise industry group Cruise Lines International Association (CLIA) recommended that the town pier be mostly closed to vehicles and create more room for passengers to board tour buses.
“But that’s not what we’ve done,” Salvatore said. He said he worked closely with the police department during the fall cruise ship season to adjust traffic control measures and continue to consult with fishermen and other users about what they need.
The town has long regulated cruise ship visitation by means of a daily passenger cap, a maximum of 3,500 passengers in the summer months and 5,500 in the spring and fall. But councilors are beginning to wonder whether additional rules will be helpful.
“I think there’s a lot of value in some level of cruise ship visitation and I don’t want to shut it down,” Councilor Gary Friedmann said. But he said he thinks many residents feel “fed up with cruise ships” by the end of the season every year.
“In that regard it doesn’t really matter whether it’s perception or reality,” he said. “It’s perception that drives policies, and the political process. I think we’ve got to give the perception to townspeople that we’re trying to do something about this.
“My concern for several months now has been that, if council doesn’t take some action to signal that we’re trying to get a handle on the most visible sign of growth, which is the cruise ship industry, that we’re going to get a backlash in terms of some kind of citizen’s initiative that’s going to be much more draconian than anything that we’d want to come up with.”
In 2017, town voters rejected Article 13, a citizen initiative that would have prohibited construction of a pier capable of berthing cruise ships. In 2019, two citizen initiatives affecting cruise ship operations and planning were approved. One provided that only registered Bar Harbor voters may vote on town committees. Many seats on the Cruise Ship Committee are held by nonresidents, but the new rule is only going into effect as members begin new terms. The other citizen initiative was a Land Use Ordinance amendment limiting the length of piers to 300 feet and limiting the size of berthed cruise ships to 500 passengers.
Further discussion of different or additional cruise ship regulations is planned for later in the spring, as part of a follow-up on the council’s goals.