The joke about “nobody goes there anymore, it’s too crowded” is offered fairly frequently now about downtown Bar Harbor in peak season, especially on cruise ship days.
A cruise-industry-funded study on “Cruise Tourism and Traffic Congestion in Bar Harbor” completed last month went over like a lead balloon. Some town councilors hurried to distance themselves from it. Some residents cited the existence of the study, which had been requested by the Town Council as part of a discussion about raising the town’s passenger fees, as evidence that town staff or officials are pushing a particular pro-cruise-growth agenda.
The more drastic recommendations in the report will probably be left alone. Others, like a digital sign on Route 3 showing the percentage of vacant parking spots in various town lots, might work well. It’s certainly true that groups of pedestrians spilling onto the sidewalk as they wait for bus tours, and traffic flow around the pier, Harbor Place and Harborside on cruise ship days, are problematic.
The town and the cruise industry have different goals. The town is not a business, or a commodity. However, we need not shut down operations because there’s not a perfect alignment of those goals. Rather, in order to negotiate and plan, the town urgently needs a better-articulated sense of its own goals and its own dealbreakers. To date, we’ve discovered our dealbreakers by stumbling into them.
In a recent column, Jill Goldthwait sagely urged caution on signing up for infrastructure projects that primarily benefit seasonal business. “It is ever so much easier to control an economic activity before substantial investment has been made,” she said.
Meanwhile, it is instructive to have this clearer picture of the industry’s goals.
“Vessels should be considered moveable, high-value assets for generating shareholder profits,” the study says. “To this end, cruise companies will evaluate the yield available by a ship assignment in a given market.”
That “yield” is the profitability of a given cruise itinerary. Cost increases in a particular port tend to lead, eventually, to fewer ship visits. The authors go on to explain that, from the cruise lines’ point of view, “continuing to increase a tax specifically targeting the cruise passengers will lower passenger expenditure, vessel yield, and overall attractiveness of Bar Harbor as a destination.”
The study warns of decreases in visitation and revenue unless the town makes the requested infrastructure investments. A decrease in visitation doesn’t sound like a bad thing to the folks making the “too crowded” joke.
But wouldn’t it be better to set policy to better manage, and perhaps limit, cruise visitation than to have it peter out because the visitor experience keeps getting worse?