A cruise ship docks in Rockland Harbor in this BDN file photo. Credit: Stephen Betts

ROCKLAND, Maine — Large cruise ship passengers enjoyed their stops in Rockland during the 2018 season, according to a city-commissioned study released last month.

But only one large liner is expected to dock in Rockland this fall, typically the prime time for cruises with more than 500 passengers in this small coastal city.

The decline in large cruise ship traffic could be a reaction from pushback the industry has received from some locals and city officials who worry this type of tourism isn’t the right fit for Rockland.

“Cruise ships go where they are wanted and where their guests want to be. So if either of those pieces are in question, that definitely impacts a cruise line’s itinerary decision-making process,” CruiseMaine Director Sarah Flink said in an email. CruiseMaine is a division of the state’s tourism department.

In recent years, large cruise ships have been a hot topic in Rockland. While proponents say visits from these ships help boost the city’s economy at the tail end of the summer season, others say that thousands of people coming ashore in one day overwhelms the city’s downtown, negatively impacting land-based tourism.

In response to these concerns, last year the Rockland City Council imposed limits on how many visits large cruise ships can make annually. Liners with more than 500 passengers are limited to six visits in September and October. There’s a daily cap of 3,000 passengers.

Smaller ships do not have those restrictions.

In 2017, the city received six visits from large cruise ships. Last year, three cruise ships with more than 500 passengers stopped in Rockland.

Only one large cruise ship is scheduled to visit the city this year — the Sapphire Princess on Sept. 29.

Harbor Management Commission Chairwoman Louise MacLellan-Ruf said she’s relieved there’s a dip in large cruise ship traffic this year, but she doesn’t think criticism from the community is entirely to blame.

“The cruise industry goes where they can go. I don’t think Rockland pushing back a little bit is going to change a multibillion-dollar corporation,” MacLellan-Ruf said. “I’m relieved to see that the community is having a response. That they’re putting input in and saying, ‘Let’s take a stronger look at this’ and not believing the propaganda that’s handed to us.”

The city commissioned the University of Southern Maine’s Center for Business and Economic Research to conduct a study about the economic impact of cruise ships on downtown Rockland in 2018.

The study found that nearly 80 percent of cruise ship passengers “were satisfied or extremely satisfied with [their] experience on shore” in Rockland.

In terms of local economic impact, large cruise ship visitors spent an average of $54 per day, while small cruise ship passengers spent $35 per day. In total, cruise ship passengers spent about $260,500 locally in 2018, including on excursion trips that took them outside of Rockland.

According to the study, 54 percent of the Rockland businesses that responded to a survey reported a boost in revenue when large cruise ships were in town.

With only one large cruise ship stopping in Rockland this year, this late-season economic boost likely won’t be as high.

“For those restaurants and shops in Rockland and Camden that find benefit in large cruise ship visits, there is definitely a discussion around ‘Gee, why aren’t there more this year?” Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce President Tom Peaco said.

While Peaco said he cannot speak for the cruise lines, he does feel the companies pay attention to the local conversation surrounding how welcome their ships are.

“For those who have been vocal about not being welcome to cruise ships, I think it’s been noticed. That does unfortunately have an impact on people who run small businesses here and really count on that shot in the arm in the fall [from cruise ship visitors] to be the difference between a good year and a great year,” Peaco said.

An ad-hoc committee formed last year and is working to update the city’s harbor management plan, which was enacted in 1995. The plan will address how the city should handle large cruise ship visits and whether or not the limits set by the City Council last August should be revised.

While the local conversation surrounding large cruise ships has been relatively quiet since the city imposed limits last year, MacLellan-Ruf said she does not expect it to stay that way.

“It will rear its head again. It always does,” she said.