The cruise ship Adventure of the Seas rests in Frenchman Bay off downtown Bar Harbor on Monday, July 22, 2019, as a group of tourists stand on a pier and a whale watch boat glides by. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

As Bar Harbor officials try to determine how much cruise ship traffic is appropriate in their scenic tourist town, they have released the results of a community survey that show most respondents think the local cruise ship visitation level has a negative impact on town.

Of the nearly 1,400 responses, 55 percent said they view cruise ships as having a negative overall impact on the town. The same percentage said that cruise ships on the whole detract from the image and attraction of Bar Harbor, a major tourism destination in Maine that serves as the primary gateway community for Acadia National Park.

A slightly smaller percentage, 53 percent, said that cruise ships on the whole have a negative impact on the town’s quality of life. On the flip side of those questions, 35 percent said they viewed cruise ships overall as having a positive impact on Bar Harbor, 27 percent said cruise ships have a positive impact on the town’s image and 26 percent said the ships have a positive impact on the town’s quality of life.

The question of how many cruise ships and cruise ship passengers is too much has become a central debate in Bar Harbor in recent years as the number has crept ever higher and the town has had to try to find ways to manage the crush of people that funnel through the town’s scenic downtown waterfront on cruise ship days. 

The town has only 5,611 residents, according to the survey, and gets millions of visitors each year, the vast majority in the summer and early fall. The number of cruise ship passengers that appear between May and early November each year in Bar Harbor recently has been roughly 250,000, often with a few thousand arriving at a time to take bus tours of Acadia or to wander the downtown village streets.

Overcrowding and congestion, both by pedestrian and tour buses, were cited as key concerns about cruise ship visits, while lack of parking and car congestion were among the biggest negative impacts of tourists who travel to Bar Harbor in vehicles. But roughly 45 percent of respondents acknowledged that the economic impacts of cruise ship tourism were important to the town.

Last year and the 2021 summer so far have been vastly different, however, as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic brought cruise ship traffic to a halt. No cruise ships visited Bar Harbor at all in 2020, though Acadia tallied an estimated 2.6 million visits for the year, and this year only small cruise ships with no Canadian ports on their itineraries are expected.

Because the large ships that visit Bar Harbor typically visit Canada — a result of the federal Passenger Vessel Service Act, which requires foreign-flagged cruise ships to have one foreign visit on their itineraries — and because Canada has banned cruise ship visits during the pandemic, Bar Harbor is not expected to get any large ship visits until 2022.

Without any cruise ship visits last year, the town lost out on collecting $1.4 million in docking fees, town officials have said.

The American-flagged Independence, which has a maximum capacity of 100 passengers, is the only cruise ship expected to visit Bar Harbor this summer, with eight stops scheduled between Aug. 8 and Sept. 26.

Just shy of half of the respondents said that the absence of cruise ships in 2020 “had a purely positive impact on them,” according to the survey results. An additional 25 percent said the impact of having no ships was mixed or neutral, while 13 percent viewed that absence negatively. Another 13 percent did not respond to that question. 

The survey was conducted by Pan Atlantic Research of Portland and was made available to residents, property owners and business owners. About two-thirds of the respondents sent in answers to the survey by mail, while one-third responded to the survey online.

Members of the Bar Harbor Town Council are expected to discuss the survey results at their regular meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Correction: An earlier version of this story cited the wrong federal law that requires foreign-flagged cruise ships to include foreign ports on their trip itineraries.

Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....