BAR HARBOR – There was an empty anchorage in the harbor Saturday where the Queen Mary 2 was supposed to be.
The cruise liner canceled its second visit of the year to the town because of rough weather, as did the Sea Princess, which also had been scheduled to arrive Saturday morning. That left shop owners to deal with the relatively empty stores and downtown sidewalks where an estimated 4,500 or so debarking passengers and half that many crew members should have been.
“It’s certainly a little bit of a letdown,” Deborah Vickers, a manager at Sherman’s Book Store on Main Street, said Sunday. “We get geared up, and we’re excited to have them here. When they don’t show up, it is a letdown. With the way the wind and the water was, it was definitely the smart thing to do. The first consideration is the safety of the people.”
Some shops had scheduled additional workers to handle the crush of extra shoppers, and a few had remained open just to take advantage of one of the last big cruise ship weekends of the season. Although word of the cancellations came early enough to notify some workers not to show up, the absence of the two cruise ships struck an economic blow to the town.
According to industry estimates, cruise ship passengers spend a little more than $100 per visit in U.S. ports. A University of Maine study showed that passengers and crew spent $11.1 million in Bar Harbor in 2005.
Despite the cancellations, Bar Harbor remains the top stop for cruise ships in what has become a growing segment of the state’s tourism industry, with 83 ships scheduled to visit the town this year, bringing with them an estimated 93,000 passengers.
That is why the Maine Port Authority is working with the town and the cruise ship industry to study the harbor and develop a destination management plan for the town.
“As the cruise ship industry continues to develop in the state, we need at some point to ask how big is big enough, and how big is too big,” said Brian Nutter, executive director of the Maine Port Authority. “We’re trying to see cruise ship tourism grow in a responsible fashion. Bar Harbor is the premier site in the state; it makes sense to look at it.”
MPA, working with the town and CruiseMaine, a coalition promoting cruise line tourism in the state, has hired consultants Bermello-Ajamil & Partners of Miami to conduct the six-month study that will analyze the current cruise industry conditions in Bar Harbor, including infrastructure, market conditions and environmental issues, and make recommendations for future cruise tourism planning and development.
The biggest problem facing the town is congestion on the waterfront, according to Harbor Master Charlie Phippen.
“We’ve got two big anchorages with plenty of water and good weather lees in case of heavy weather,” Phippen said. “The problem is right on the waterfront with the use of tenders [by cruise ships] and the additional traffic it adds to a busy harbor.”
There also is congestion on land stemming from the tour buses that line up near the town dock parking lot to carry ship passengers to sites around Bar Harbor, including Acadia National Park.
“Those are two things that should be looked at,” Phippen said.
The study has been under way since August and, according to Nutter, has gathered considerable information that is still being analyzed.
“What we learn may help in other areas of the state as they start to grow,” he said.
That growth already is taking place. According to MPA statistics, the cruise ship visits to Maine ports have more than doubled since 2000. Last year, there were 180 cruise ship visits that brought nearly 147,000 passengers, and an estimated $31 million in direct sales, to Maine ports.
In addition to larger cruise ships that visit, smaller cruise ships are now active along the Maine coast stopping at ports in Boothbay Harbor, Bath, Camden, Rockland, Belfast, Bucksport, Bangor, Castine and Port Clyde as well as the larger ports of Bar Harbor and Portland.
Bangor’s growing cruise ship business is seen as a key element in its waterfront development plans. Rockland has mounted an effort to attract larger cruise ships, and Eastport, with a revitalized downtown, hopes to join the ranks of the state’s cruise ship ports by next year.