By Samuel Shepherd and Liz Graves
BAR HARBOR — The cruise ship season will kick off with the first of 174 ship visits here on April 19, four days before the season started last year.
Hurtigruten Line’s Fram will be anchored here between 8 a.m. that day and 6 a.m. the next morning. The ship is 374 feet long and carries 420 passengers and 200 crew members.
Five ships will make their first visits to Bar Harbor this year: Polar Latitude’s Hebridean Sky, launched in 1991, Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas, launched in 2001, AIDA Cruises’ AIDAvita, launched in 2001, Windstar Cruises’ Star Pride, launched in 1998, and Silversea Cruise’s Silver Wind, launched in 1995.
The final visit of the season, from Insignia, is planned for Nov. 7. That’s six days later than the last ship of 2017. Insignia, operated by Oceania Cruise, holds 824 passengers and 400 crew members, and is 592 feet long.
The season heats up towards the end of August and into September, where some days will have two or three arrivals, but they are usually smaller ships.
Cruise ship management has been a hot button issue for several years, but conflicts about a potential pier capable of berthing large ships catapulted the town into the national spotlight last fall.
Harbormaster Charlie Phippen accepts reservations from ships looking to stop here, often years in advance, in accordance with policies recommended by the town Cruise Ship Committee and set by the Town Council.
A cruise ship passenger cap, limiting the total number of passengers allowed on visiting ships in a given day (measured by the ships’ capacity), is the primary management tool used.
The caps are 3,500 passengers in July and August, and 5,500 in the spring and fall months. Phippen was allowed to accept reservations exceeding the cap by no more than 200 in July and August last year; this year, that license was extended to the whole season.
Separately, town councilors approved a plan last year to allow a reservation exceeding the passenger cap by more than the permitted 200 passengers for one day this season. On Aug. 27, Anthem of the Seas will visit. That ship’s passenger capacity is 4,180, 680 more than the summer cap.
Phippen said Friday the goal of that experiment is to see how much difference an increased number of cruise ship visitors would make.
“My feeling, because I’ve been doing this so long, is that we won’t notice anything,” he said. The town sees a lot of land-based tourists during August, so he expects a couple hundred more cruise ship passengers will not make a tangible difference in how congested the downtown area feels.
The Cruise Ship Committee also has created a port of call summary with the goal of tracking actual numbers of passengers on board from the ship’s manifest, number of passengers and crew coming ashore, and number of passengers going on excursions. They were used for the first time in the 2017 season.
But these forms, filled out variously by ship agents, pilots, Phippen’s office and chamber of commerce staff, might be of limited usefulness.
“They are not required to give us this information,” said chamber director Martha Searchfield. “The forms were incomplete or inconsistent, and we were not able to verify all the information we did collect.”
She thinks the data collected is accurate for less than half of the ships that visited last year.
The Cruise Ship Committee is set to discuss the 2017 data and ways to improve the system with the Town Council.