BAR HARBOR, Maine — Last year’s record has yet to be broken, but if all goes according to schedule, 2008 is expected to be a banner year for cruise ship visits in Maine.
For the first time, the number of cruise ship visits to Bar Harbor, the most popular port in the state for such passenger vessels, is expected to top 100. Charlie Phippen, Bar Harbor’s harbor master, said recently that cruise ships are expected to drop anchor in Frenchman Bay 109 times by the end of October. Last year, Bar Harbor had 91 such visits, while in 2006 it had 73.
“So far, so good,” Chris Fogg, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said Thursday. “[The local cruise ship season] is really starting to kick in.”
On Thursday, two new large cruise ships made their first-ever visits to Bar Harbor, the 61st and 62nd such visits of the season, which started with the Maasdam’s visit on May 11. The AIDAaura, a ship operated by AIDA Cruises of Germany, and Holland America’s Eurodam stopped in Bar Harbor and ferried a total of about 3,000 passengers to shore, where they could browse in shops, sample local food and tour Acadia National Park.
A small group of Maine tourism officials greeted the AIDAaura by traveling out to the vessel and presenting its captain with a plaque commemorating the visit and with other Maine-themed gifts, including a live lobster and blueberry wine. The group, with members of the media in tow, then got a tour of the ship, which has a video gaming room, several restaurants and bars, an 850-seat theater, and a large exercise room complete with an indoor putting green.
Amy Powers of industry advocacy group CruiseMaineUSA said Thursday that 2008 has been a busy year for Maine’s cruise ship industry. Powers was among the group of tourism officials who greeted the AIDAaura captain Thursday morning.
“We’ve had the highest passenger count we’ve ever had,” she said.
Bar Harbor alone could receive more than 150,000 cruise ship passengers this year, according to the passenger capacities of each ship that is expected to visit. Combined with the 24 large ships that are expected to visit Portland through this fall, Maine as a whole could have more than 200,000 tourists who travel to Maine on cruise ships from Boston, New York or Canada in 2008.
The expansion of American Cruise Lines in Bangor, which operates smaller vessels that travel to Penobscot Bay and beyond, also helps to boost the number of cruise ship passengers in Maine, according to Powers.
The number of cruise ship passengers that come to Maine is expected to increase. Portland is scheduled to receive more than 30 large ships in 2009, while Rockland is expecting its first two large cruise ship visits ever. Even Bar Harbor’s annual cruise ship schedule, which changes constantly, could get busier, officials said.
Powers said foreign-flagged vessels such as Eurodam and AIDAaura, which often cater to foreign tourists, are likely to be seen more frequently in Maine waters as the economic power of the euro outpaces the dollar in the changing global economy.
“Next year is going to be stronger,” she said.
With those passengers comes something even more important: out-of-state money. According to a University of Maine study, the cruise ship industry contributed $13.7 million to the Bar Harbor area economy in 2005.
There have been some growing pains in Bar Harbor as local cruise ship business has expanded over the past two decades, but the town has become more active in recent years in managing the flow of cruise ship passengers once they come ashore. Last year the town and state collaborated on a study on how to best manage cruise ships visits. This year, the town has experimented with having tour buses drop off cruise ship passengers by the Village Green instead of by the pier where the cruise ship tenders carry them back and forth to the large vessels.
Howard Stevens, co-owner of Evergreen Pottery Gallery on Mount Desert Street, said Thursday that he has been quite happy with having the cruise ship passengers dropped off outside his business. When the passengers are picked up and dropped off next to the harbor, he said, they don’t get the chance to walk by and spend their money at many of the shops and restaurants in town.
“Today was great,” Stevens said of the business he got from the AIDAaura and Eurodam passengers. “We’ve been trying to get this for years.”
Stevens said there is about 80 percent more foot traffic in his shop when cruise ships are in town than on other days.
“I think it’s quite valuable,” he said of the local cruise ship visits. “I think it’s very important.”
Fogg said there is a limit to the number of cruise ships that Bar Harbor can accommodate comfortably, especially during the already busy fall season, but the town would like to get more cruise ship visits in May and June. Balancing the number of cruise ships to make sure their visits are enjoyable both for passengers and residents is key, he said.
Studies have shown that up to one-third of cruise ship passengers who visit Bar Harbor come back again on their own, either by land or air, according to Fogg.
“We’re a popular destination, without a doubt,” he said. “People who come here really enjoy it.”
Maine Tourism Association CEO Vaughn Stinson, who also visited the AIDAaura on Thursday, said that though Bar Harbor may be nearing its cruise ship capacity, there is plenty of opportunity for Maine’s cruise ship industry to grow.
“We haven’t really begun to scratch the surface,” he said.
But as more cruise ships come to Maine, others are expected not to return. Today, the Cunard vessel Queen Elizabeth 2 is expected to make its final visit to Bar Harbor. The British ship, launched 41 years ago, is expected to be retired this winter and converted into a floating hotel in the Persian Gulf city of Dubai.