BAR HARBOR, Maine — A sure sign that summer really is on its way is the start of the cruise ship season in Bar Harbor.
The 720-foot cruise liner Maasdam will bring close to 1,300 passengers to town on Friday, kicking off earlier than ever a season that promises to bring thousands more visitors and millions of tourist dollars to this destination area.
“It looks like it will be a good season,” Chris Fogg, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said Wednesday. “We’re pretty excited.”
The town is scheduled for 118 cruise ship visits, carrying an estimated 175,000 passengers this year. That could be a record for the town.
“If all of them are able to come in, it would be a record,” Harbormaster Charlie Phippen said. “But we normally see some cancellations. Over the course of the hurricane season and with coastal storms, we’re not surprised to see cancellations.”
The cruise ship season is shaping up well for the rest of the state as well, according to Amy Powers, director of Cruise Maine, a tourism marketing organization.
State ports are expected to see 330 cruise visits between April 29 and Oct. 26, including homeport operations in Portland and Bangor. Those cruise ships, which include both large luxury liners as well as the smaller ships that cruise along the coast of Maine, will have a total capacity of nearly 263,000 passengers. They are expected to visit Maine ports including Bar Harbor, Portland, Rockland, Eastport, Freeport, Kennebunkport, Bath, Boothbay Harbor, Camden , Belfast, Searsport, Bucksport and Bangor.
The April 29 arrival of the Maasdam starts the season earlier than ever, according to the Chamber. Last year, the first ship arrived on May 1, Phippen said. The early schedule, however, did not pose a problem for the harbormaster.
“We’ve got everything in the water that needs to be in the water; we’re just hoping for a decent day,” he said. “We usually try to be ready by May 1, so we were going to be ready anyway.”
Although it’s early in the season, Fogg said, most of the downtown businesses will be open for the Maasdam’s arrival.
“We definitely welcome them with open arms,” said Adrienne Buckley, a manager at Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium. “It helps to get business pumped up this early in the season. It’s an eye-opener to let people know that the town is open for business.”
She said the visitors will find friendly faces and a lot to do even this early in the season. One of the key tourist destinations is Acadia National Park. The park reopened the Park Loop Road earlier this month, and the park tour buses will be lined up at the town dock to take interested passengers on a tour of the park, according to Fogg.
The Chamber also will work with the town again this year to provide greeters for the arriving passengers. According to Fogg, greeters will pass out information about the town and also will present them with small magnets to commemorate their visit to the town.
One of the things the Chamber has done differently this year is to adjust the drop zone for the park tour buses traveling back into town from the national park, according to Fogg. The buses generally return directly to the town dock area where passengers then reboard their cruise ships. The Chamber has identified additional drop zones in the downtown area that will give passengers the option of getting off the bus there and walking through the downtown area back to the waterfront.
“That will give them the opportunity to see what we have to offer and maybe encourage them to come back as a land visitor,” he said.
Cruise ships have become an important part of the town’s economy, but it hasn’t always been that way. While Bar Harbor and Mount Desert Island have been a tourist draw for more than a century, the cruise ship industry is a relatively new phenomenon for the area. In 1990, for instance, Bar Harbor had just 22 cruise ship visits. Last year, the number was five times more than that with 120 scheduled cruise ship visits and only 10 canceled due to weather.
“This has been a big impact for us, especially in the fall,” Fogg said. “Twenty years ago, our season ended on Labor Day. Now, we stretch that all the way out to the last week of October. It’s helped us to broaden our shoulder season.”
More ships mean more passengers and that translates into more local spending. The economic impact from cruise ships nationwide was about $35.1 billion in 2009, according to an economic impact study from the Cruise Lines International Association.
That same report indicated that Maine accounted for $34.5 million in direct cruise industry spending in 2009, an increase of about $6 million or 19 percent over the previous year. That spending generated 637 jobs in Maine and about $19 million in wages for Maine workers that year, according to the report.
The cruise ships provide a “pretty big impact” economically for the town, Fogg said, noting that a recent study done for the city of Portland indicated that cruise ship passengers spend on average $101 per visit.
Based on that estimate, the 175,000 cruise ship passengers expected to visit Bar Harbor this year could spend more than $17 million in town.
A list of the cruise ships scheduled to visit Bar Harbor this year is available on the town’s website at www.barharbor.gov under the Harbor Department.