Knowledge is power

Bar Harbor is preparing to welcome the first cruise ship visit of the year next week. As always, town staff and leaders are working on two tracks at the same time: meeting present commitments while planning for the future. Questions brought to the fore in the last year likely will be with us for a long time: How will we know how many visits, how many passengers are enough? If the costs and benefits fall in a lopsided way on some businesses and residents, how can those competing interests be balanced?

Good decisions depend on good information. More should be done to gather that information.

“Cruise ships get blamed for everything because they’re so visible,” Councilor Gary Friedman said last winter. “But we really have to work to determine where the impacts on the town are coming from.”

In accepting reservations from the cruise lines, the harbormaster relies on daily passenger caps, which allow fewer cruise-based visitors in summer when the town is more crowded with land-based guests, but more in the spring and fall. Conversations about how the town regulates cruise visits have centered on those caps, along with the logistics of three available anchorages.

The passenger capacity of each ship is the number used when calculating whether a reservation falls within the caps. Reservations are made years in advance. In 2017, the harbormaster’s office and chamber of commerce undertook a project, at the direction of the Town Council, to better measure how many passengers actually came ashore from each visiting ship.

The port of call summary form was meant to track the actual number of passengers on board from the ship’s manifest, number of passengers coming ashore, number of crew coming ashore and number of passengers on shore excursions.

“We will have done the daily survey for all of 2017,” the harbormaster told the council last winter, as they were debating whether to approve exceeding the passenger caps on a trial basis on a few days — now only one day — in 2018. “We’ll be armed with a lot more info.”

But now that the 2017 season is past, the Cruise Ship Committee is concerned that the data from that survey is incomplete and may be unreliable. That disappointment should not dissuade the town from learning from the first attempt and continuing to seek the desired information. A different approach, with more clarity about who “owns” the project, and perhaps more resources may be needed.

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