Whether they travel by land or sea, everyone it seems wants to be on Mount Desert Island. June visitation to Acadia shattered the all-time record for that month, increasing 31.4 percent over the previous high and up 226 percent over pandemic-affected June 2020. Few cruise ship passengers were among the latest blockbuster numbers as just one smaller ship is visiting Bar Harbor this year. But they’ll be back. Roughly 170 cruise ships visited in 2019 and about 150 already are scheduled to come in 2022. Some are booked into 2030.
A recent survey of Bar Harbor residents and business owners found that 55 percent of the 1,378 respondents felt that cruise ship tourism has an overall negative effect on the town. Thirty-five percent felt the impact was more positive than negative. For many, it was a question of volume. Sixty-six percent of those surveyed felt that the 2019 cruise ship season, the last season that had a full schedule, averaged too many passengers.
According to Town Council Chairman Jeff Dobbs, “cruise ship reduction is inevitable.” Good. As with sugar and show tunes, moderation is key. Bar Harbor can find a better balance between being a welcoming host and protecting those assets that make the town an attractive port of call to begin with, among them natural beauty, a vibrant downtown and an array of possible excursions.
Councilors were wise to gauge public opinion on the issue and now will bring to the table their own ideas for right-sizing cruise visitation. An Aug. 2 workshop is planned to discuss thoughts surrounding the frequency of ships, their size, the number of days cruise ships come to town per week and anchorage sites. In immediate action, the council directed the town harbormaster to designate any new cruise ship reservations as tentative. Continuing to allow cruise ship companies to book years in advance may be good for corporate planning, but it is not good for giving town officials the leeway needed to respond to changing conditions shoreside. Tarrying too long on decision making and leaving companies in limbo, however, could damage the cooperative relationship town officials have enjoyed with the cruise industry.
In 2009, a total of 141,570 cruise ship passengers visited Bar Harbor. A decade later, that figure jumped nearly 80 percent. The biggest ships carry thousands of passengers disgorged onto sidewalks and into tour buses to see the sights. With any luck, they spend some of their vacation dollars locally. But that spending is usually less than visitors who come for longer stays. Still, it is an economic boost and a welcome one to many business owners.
The right kind of limits can improve the Bar Harbor experience for locals and for cruise ship visitors alike.