When most people think of taking a cruise, they consider such tropical locations as the Bahamas and other Caribbean destinations, the Mediterranean or even Alaska.
But cruises that stop in Maine, although lesser-known, also are fairly popular, so much so that the town council in Bar Harbor — the state’s largest cruise ship port — is considering slashing cruise ship visitations by as much as 87% as early as 2022 to ease congestion in the town.
And Maine’s motorcoach industry is concerned about being part of the collateral damage that would be caused by such a move.
“That’s 20% of my business,” said Scott Riccio, owner of Northeast Charter & Tour Co., of Lewiston, Maine. “And 20% of my revenue is a big deal.”
Northeast Charter, one of four major motorcoach operators in Maine, provides transportation to cruise ship passengers on shore excursions, with Acadia National Park being a popular destination.
Riccio’s company and Cyr Bus Line in Old Town, Maine, provide most of the buses for shore excursions from Bar Harbor. Two other Maine operators — VIP Tour & Charter Bus Co. in Portland and Custom Coach and Limousine in Gorham — are a few hours away from Bar Harbor so do less business there. They provide more transportation to cruise passengers arriving in Portland, which has a smaller port than Bar Harbor, and the even smaller Rockland port.
The town council’s proposal to reduce the number of ships and passengers in Bar Harbor stems from a community survey conducted earlier this year that found many residents and business owners favor scaling back the number of cruise ship visits. Some survey participants called for a permanent ban, while others said cruise ships are vital to the local economy.
Just over half of respondents said cruise ship tourism has more negative than positive effects on Bar Harbor, citing pedestrian and vehicle congestion, limited parking availability, and environmental and pollution impacts.
But a quarter to a third of respondents viewed the industry favorably, saying the industry provides a positive economic impact through the $20 million in annual visitor spending, and passenger service and port development fees paid to the town. Business owners and seasonal residents were more likely to support the industry than year-round residents.
According to an article in the local publication Mainebiz, Bar Harbor hosted 157 cruise ships that carried 250,164 passengers in 2019. Nearly 200 ships that had a capacity for about 300,000 passengers were booked for 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of the 2020 and 2021 cruise seasons.
2022 season impact
Port visits for 2022 are already scheduled to include 174 ships carrying 292,212 passengers, prompting the town council to propose drastically cutting back those numbers. The council wants to shrink the 2022 cruise ship season by two months, from the current April through November to May through October. The proposal would eliminate visits already scheduled for April and November, as well as limit the number of ships and passengers that could arrive between May and October.
The recommendations, which are under consideration by the town’s Cruise Ship Committee, would cut the number of cruise visitors by 87%. Some town council members are insisting that the committee make its own recommendations as soon as possible so they can be implemented for the 2022 cruise season.
That, however, could lead to legal complications for Bar Harbor, according to a letter sent to the town council in November by Kelly Craighead, President and CEO of Cruise Lines International Association, an industry trade group. She wrote that reducing the number of cruise ship visits and passengers on such short notice “would be enormously disruptive and it would be out of line with Bar Harbor’s usual practice of providing cruise lines with at least 18 months’ advance notice of schedule changes.”
“Cancelling cruise visits for the 2022 season would suddenly and negatively impact those visitors arriving by ship and contracts with local vendors and service providers in your area who have long been constructive partners with Bar Harbor,” Craighead wrote.
She added that “there are legal and constitutional issues that would be called into play were the Town Council to move forward with the proposal as presented. In short, because the sudden cancellation by a local government at one port of call in a range can have knock-on effects on previous or subsequent port calls, the adverse financial impacts can amount to an unconstitutional taking by the local government.”
“For the reasons expressed above, we respectfully ask that the current 2022 cruise schedule not be changed and that we work collaboratively with the Town Council to address the 2023 season and beyond as part of a holistic discussion on tourism management overall in Bar Harbor,” Craighead wrote.
Watching and waiting
Members of the Maine motorcoach industry say they also are willing to work with Bar Harbor officials on the issue. They also note that buses have a positive impact on tourism and the environment because they can carry more people, thereby reducing the number of cars on the road.
“Motorcoaches carry 50 people with only one engine,” said Riccio, of Northeast Charter. “It’s the way to go.”
He said the industry has been working with Acadia National Park, which already restricts the number of motorcoaches that can drop off and pick up passengers at the same time, and has always followed regulations involving idling and parking.
“We’re from here,” said Riccio, who is a member of the United Motorcoach Association board of directors. “We try to be good neighbors and good stewards.”
Most of the cruise lines that serve Bar Harbor also visit Portland and Rockland, as well as Canadian cities, during weeklong cruises. Motorcoach industry officials are concerned that if Bar Harbor drastically reduces the number of ships that can stop at its port, the cruise lines might decide to bypass Maine altogether.
“Some cruise lines, if they can’t come to Bar Harbor, won’t do Portland,” said Jason Briggs, Vice President of Business Development for VIP Tour & Charter.
Gregg Isherwood, of Custom Coach and Limousine, agrees. “If they make fewer stops in Bar Harbor, I suppose that could mean fewer Portland cruise ship visits, which would create a hardship for us in September and October.”
At this point, the Maine motorcoach industry is watching and waiting as the Bar Harbor Town Council and the Cruise Line Committee work through the issue.
“We’re in wait-and-see mode,” Riccio said. “There weren’t any cruise ships this year so we’ve been forced to live without that business. If (the proposed cruise ship reductions) don’t happen in 2022, they probably will happen in 2023.”