BAR HARBOR, Maine — The summer cruise ship season began Sunday when the 720-foot Veendam pulled into Frenchman Bay and unloaded a throng of passengers who shopped, ate and went sightseeing in town and Acadia National Park.
The Veendam was the first of 135 scheduled cruise ship visits scheduled for the 2013 season. Even with the usual amount of cancellations, that number will shatter the previous record of 108 visits in 2012.
Cruise ships have become a fixture in Bar Harbor since the early ’90s, when only two dozen called per year. In the fiscal year beginning July 1, the town will receive more than a half-million dollars in cruise ship fees, said Harbormaster Charlie Phippen. And businesses in Bar Harbor and surrounding towns will rake in untold dollars from disembarked passengers.
“The cruise ships, on a good day, can mean a [sales] increase of 40 percent,” said Matt Hochman, owner of the Opera House Internet Cafe and Trailhead Cafe, both on Cottage Street.
On Sunday, the Veendam’s passengers lined the streets and filled Agamont Park. Naralle King of Australia went shopping with two other women. She said the ship’s crew had told her Bar Harbor was “a quaint little town.”
“I was imagining a little town like Cabot Cove, in ‘Murder, She Wrote,’” King said.
Veendam offered passengers a $99 excursion through Acadia National Park, promising “one of the most scenic drives on the east coast” along the 27-mile Park Loop Road. But thanks to federal sequestration, portions of the park — including most of the Park Loop Road and the road to the summit of Cadillac Mountain — are inaccessible to motorists and tour buses.
The park will not be completely open until May 19. Before then, the Veendam and its sister ship, Maasdam, will each visit once.
Passengers who had signed up for tours through the park in advance were warned about the closure via email a month ago and given the option to cancel their excursion, said Greg Gordon, vice president of shore excursions in North America and the Caribbean for Intercruises, Veendam’s agent and tour provider.
“We still have tours into the park,” Gordon said Sunday. “We’ve visited Jordan Pond House and Thunder Hole. The response has been positive from the guests.”
But Gary Keenan, a Veendam passenger from Scottsdale, Ariz., said he opted out of visiting Acadia when he found out he wouldn’t see the top of Cadillac.
“We went online and found out the park was closed. That affected our decision,” he said.
Other passengers could not seem to care less about whether the park was open. Joy Roxas of California stopped in Agamont Park to shoot pictures of the Porcupine Islands.
“They didn’t say anything about the park,” she said of the ship’s crew. “They said lobster is really good here, and they’re known for their lighthouses.”
“We love it. I wish I could live here,” she said.
In many ways, Bar Harbor is still preparing for its busy tourist season. Some businesses aren’t yet open, but those that were reaped the rewards on Sunday.
“I put one more person on staff during cruise ship days,” said Desiree Bousquet, co-owner of Epi’s Pizza. She said that the restaurant had to prepare more “tourist foods” those days.
“We sell a lot more chowder. Lobster rolls too, and blueberry pie,” she said.
Britt Hulbert, owner of Jekyll and Hyde, said she’s opened her doors earlier each year to accommodate cruise ships that start appearing earlier and call even as late as November.
“We open in May now. In the past we opened in June,” she said. “It’s not just the cruise ships, but they do lengthen the season, especially in the fall.”
The only other city in Maine that sees significant cruise ship traffic is Portland. While Bar Harbor has seen growth in recent years, Portland has had fewer ships come each year for the past four. The city is scheduled to have 58 visits this year, and tallied 59 in 2012, 65 in 2011 and 71 in 2010.
But despite fewer ships calling, more passengers arrive in Portland each year, said Nicole Clegg, the city’s spokeswoman. This year, the city expects more than 71,000 passengers, who will each spend between $80 and $110, according to a study cited by Clegg.
“It speaks to booking bigger ships, which carry more passengers,” she said. “That’s a reflection on the industry. A lot of cruise lines are building bigger boats with greater capacity.”
The city’s new Ocean Gateway terminal means even large ships can dock. In Bar Harbor, ships must weigh anchor in Frenchman Bay and ferry passengers to the town pier.
Clegg said Portland is trying to convince cruise lines to stop in Portland before heading to Bar Harbor.
“Bar Harbor has Acadia National Park, but there’s no port facility,” Clegg said. “What we market is that we have amenities like water, electricity, things that ships are concerned about. … So we can give them that kind of stop before they tender in Bar Harbor.”
And because those aboard can simply walk off the ship and into downtown Portland, Clegg said the city is a popular stop with cruise ship crews: “It’s very easy for them to come and go. There’s a convenience factor that we can market.”
Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.CORRECTION:
A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Portland is the only other Maine city to receive cruise ships. While Portland and Bar Harbor receive the majority of cruise traffic, smaller ports such as those in Rockland, Belfast and Eastport also receive a handful of ships each year.