By Earl Brechlin
I applaud the Bar Harbor Town Council’s decision to begin a discussion about an appropriate level of cruise ship visitation for our community.
With this year’s cancellations due to COVID–19, and the prospects of little or no cruise ship trade next year, this is the perfect time to step back from merely taking every ship that comes our way and ask what we, as a community, residents as well as business people, think is appropriate.
From Naval and research vessels, to the Bluenose ferry, large ships have always been a part of the culture of Frenchman Bay. I can remember the excitement when ocean-going passenger ships first started coming here, beginning with the Queen Elizabeth 2, thanks to the efforts of the late Dick Libby. Throngs gathered along the shore path to see each ship.
It began with a handful — then 30 each year, then 45, then 75, then it topped 100 and recently near double that. Now, it seems we are overrun, our waterfront blockaded by a wall of towering tour buses, hordes of people clogging the sidewalks. Unfettered cruise visitation has also created additional crowding and congestion problems in Acadia National Park.
Pushback from residents and fishermen surfaced in a major way in 2019 when the portion of West Street in front of Harbor Place was totally blocked for long periods of time each day.
They say the best way to boil a frog unawares is to put it in the pot and slowly turn up the heat until it is too late for it to escape. That is exactly what has happened here in Bar Harbor. If we were to begin fresh again today, there is no way I believe that townspeople would say “let’s start out with 200 ships and see how it goes.”
Cruise ships absolutely should remain part of our future. They connect us to the wider world, celebrate our long-standing maritime heritage, and passengers inspired by what they have seen on their brief visits are ideal prospects for future returnees. I would never support banning ships entirely. But the most recent onslaught suggests it has gotten out of hand.
Proponents point to the town’s passenger cap as a management tool, but the harbormaster is allowed to exceed it, and often does. The inside joke is that, despite the passenger cap, there has never been a limit on the number of days ships can call. That’s no real “cap” at all. The total has only gone up and up year after year.
As the council explores this issue, I urge all the pertinent aspects of cruise ship visitation should be on the table. First, to get a clearer picture, small ships that can tie up to the town dock have minimal impact and should not be included in any totals. If there’s room to tie up — welcome aboard.
But why not consider capping the number of megaships to one per day?
What about declaring one or two days a week as cruise-ship-free to allow residents and land-based visitors a less congested and improved visual experience?
Sure, the town might lose some fees, but the revenue loss could be tempered by encouraging cruise ship companies to bid for slots on prime days or dates.
One current practice that scares me the most is that cruise ship companies have been allowed to schedule visits and reserve slots going out over the next six years. Again, it apparently has just kind of happened.
While fairness suggests those scheduled for a year or two out should be honored if safe and warranted, far-off requests cannot be allowed to become an excuse to tie our hands from applying the brakes.
Our waterfront is public property. It is not there for the exclusive use of the cruise ships and ancillary, shore-based operators. We welcome the economic benefits and activity, but we need to acknowledge there need to be limits.
Local law already prohibits conducting business on the pier and surrounding areas. It states, “No person shall use, or permit to be used in any manner, the Municipal Pier or any part thereof or any float attached or adjacent thereto or any part thereof for the purpose of conducting business or soliciting potential customers…” Unfortunately, we have been surrendering more and more of that area to commerce every year.
While the pandemic has cast down a gauntlet of unforeseen challenges, it has also provided us with an opportunity to take a breath, step back and look at cruise ship visitation free of the slowly warming water in that proverbial pot. How public property is used and when it can be used, especially when it comes to for-profit enterprises, are important policy decisions that require involvement from all quarters — residents, business people, maritime and fishery interests, as well as those in the cruise ship and tourism industries.
Earl Brechlin is a Registered Maine Guide, award-winning author and resident of Bar Harbor.