Seatrade Cruise News is part of the Informa Markets Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.

Bar Harbor meeting on 'next steps' after judge OKs 1K cruisers/day landing cap

PHOTO: FRANK WINKLER/PIXABAY CRUISE_Maine_Lighthouse_Pixabay_Photo_Frank_Winkler_.jpg
Wednesday's Bar Harbor Town Council meeting will be closely watched to shed light on 'next steps' for cruise operations. Here, Bass Harbor Head Light
Bar Harbor Town Council called a special Wednesday night meeting to decide 'next steps' following a court decision capping landings at 1,000 cruisers per day.

Judge Lance Walker of the US District Court in Maine upheld the cap approved by Bar Harbor voters in a November 2022 referendum that was challenged by a coalition of local businesses, the pilots association and the operator of the piers where cruise ship tenders land.

Plan to appeal

One plaintiff, the Association to Preserve and Protect Local Livelihoods (APPL), whose members include local restaurants, shops and tour-related businesses, said it will appeal, while the Penobscot Bay and River Pilots Association is reviewing the court decision.

In a statement to Bar Harbor Story, an attorney for APPL said: 'The Bar Harbor ordinance was designed to bar a whole category of the transportation sector — traditional cruise ships — from coming to Bar Harbor. Plaintiffs contend, and continue to contend, that this sweeping ban violates the US Constitution. Plaintiffs disagree that Bar Harbor’s exercise of this authority is only a matter of "home rule" under Maine law.'

'Huge win for citizens and democracy'

Art gallery owner Charles Sidman, a leading proponent of the referendum and interventor defendant in the suit, called Walker's ruling a 'huge win for Bar Harbor citizens and democracy.' And, in a Mount Desert Islander editorial, he urged the Town Council to act now, with transparency, to implement the new cruise regime.

Potential 80-90% reduction in 2024 cruise numbers

As written, the ordinance 'would reduce cruise visitation to Bar Harbor by 80-90% compared to 2023 numbers, a number included in the judge's decision,' CruiseMaine said in a statement to Seatrade Cruise News. 'These restrictions would inevitably require the cruise lines to change their Maine itineraries, but it's too early to predict what those changes would look like.'

CruiseMaine, a marketing agency for the state, also noted the legal process is ongoing.

Since that process is unlikely to be resolved before Bar Harbor's cruise season begins May 2, the Town Council's decisions on Wednesday night may have significant impact for the 2024 season.

Calls booked before March 17, 2022 are grandfathered

The ordinance grandfathers calls that were booked prior to March 17, 2022, so those wouldn't be subject to the new daily landing cap.

Approximately 40 calls this season were booked after the cutoff, according to Sarah Flink, executive director, CruiseMaine. CruiseMaine's port schedule shows ships with total capacity for 182,000 passengers. Norwegian Cruise Line has the most calls: 34, followed by Holland America Line (15) and Royal Caribbean International (13).

Town Council considerations

At its Wednesday night meeting, the Town Council could choose to honor all the booked calls or elect to enforce the ordinance as written, without exempting the calls booked after March 17, 2022. Or it could take some other decision.

The major impact will be in future years. The 1,000 persons per day cap has huge repercussions for Bar Harbor as a cruise destination. Judge Walker noted only 27 of the 134 ships that were scheduled to call in 2023 would be able to disembark their entire complement of passengers without exceeding the cap.

One of three Class A ports of entry

Bar Harbor is among three Class A ports of entry for Maine, along with Portland and Eastport. Many cruise ships arriving from Canada and other foreign ports undergo clearance there.

Historically, Bar Harbor was the state's leading cruise destination. Part of its special appeal is proximity to Acadia National Park, a popular destination that's not within practical reach of excursions from ships calling at the other two ports.

Portland's calls have shot up in recent years, partly due to the uncertainty about Bar Harbor. But with 143 calls and more than 230,000 passengers scheduled in 2024, Portland is already very busy, especially in the peak fall foliage months of September/October. And while Eastport has a sizable pier, there are other infrastructure limitations.

CLIA's stance

Cruise Lines International Association did not respond to a request for comment on the Bar Harbor ruling, and CLIA hasn't been a party to the legal action.

It may be worth noting that since 2008 the association has adhered to voluntary passenger caps and in 2021 proposed reducing numbers to address growing concerns about crowding. From that sprang the town's new memoranda of agreement with cruise lines in September and October 2022 — just before the voter referendum — that withdrew the months of April and November from the cruise reservation system, lowered daily passenger caps from 5,500 to 3,800 during May, June, September and October and instituted a new monthly cap of 65,000.

This resulted in an 18% reduction in passenger numbers from 2022 to 2023, when just over 157,000 cruisers visited Bar Harbor.