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Small Cruise Ships Are Coming Back, But They Won't Replace Lost Tourist Dollars In Maine

A huge cruise ship dwarfs Spring Point Ledge Light as it enters Portland Harbor in September 2019. Large, lucrative cruise ships are not expected to return to Maine this year.
Troy R. Bennett
A huge cruise ship dwarfs Spring Point Ledge Light as it enters Portland Harbor in September 2019. Large, lucrative cruise ships are not expected to return to Maine this year.

PORTLAND, Maine — State officials have given small, domestic cruise ships permission to return to Maine this summer. But huge, multi-thousand passenger vessels — and the megabucks they bring the state in tourist spending and docking fees — aren’t coming back anytime soon.

Exact numbers are hard to come by, but state and local officials estimate Maine lost more than $30 million in docking fees and on-shore tourist spending in 2020 when the coronavirus pandemic canceled the entire season.

This year, instead of hundreds of large ships carrying thousands of people, Maine will likely see just two small vessels bearing fewer than 200 at a time. Those small boats, and their relative handful of tourists, will only bring a fraction of the money the state would haul in during a normal cruise season.

On Thursday, CruiseMaine, an arm of the Maine Office of Tourism, announced the 96-passenger “Independence” and the 175-passenger “American Constitution” will arrive in May and June, respectively. All passengers will be required to be fully vaccinated against the coronavirus before boarding.

Both ships are operated by New England-based American Cruise Lines.

Right now, only ships carrying fewer than 250 passengers have been cleared by the state and federal health officials. Larger vessels are still prohibited from operating in U.S. waters.

According to CruiseMaine, large vessels require 90 days to get ready for passenger operations, which puts Maine’s early summer season out of the question. A late summer or fall season remains possible, but unlikely.

Without the big ships, Portland and Bar Harbor, Maine’s two most popular cruise destinations, will feel most of the economic pain. Out of roughly 450,000 passengers expected to set foot in Maine last year, 95 percent were bound for those two destinations, according to CruiseMaine.

Charlie Phippen, Bar Harbor’s harbormaster, said his town lost $1.4 million in 2020 docking fees. Most of that came from large vessels.

Town officials have yet to formally approve any cruise ship visits for 2021. But if they do, Phippen said the “Independence” is likely to visit Bar Harbor 19 times. Each time, the town will charge around $1,700 in docking fees.

Bar Harbor’s municipal docking fees are calculated based on $4.55 per person of stated capacity. That does not include crew and can be different than the actual number of visitors on board.

Larger ships, designed for thousands of tourists, pay a lot more than smaller ones.

“We get ships with up to 4,000 people,” Phippen said.

A ship that size works out to more than $18,000 in docking fees.

Large ships actually anchor in the harbor and passengers are run into town on tender boats which dock at a privately owned pier. Phippen said ships also pay the private company a fee, as well.

Eben Salvatore, a Bar Harbor hotel executive and chairman of the town’s cruise ship committee, told the Bangor Daily News in February that it would be “devastating” to have a second summer and fall with few or no ships.

“Cruise ships aren’t just a sideshow,” Salvatore said, adding that cruise ship tourists generate between $20 million and $30 million for Mount Desert Island’s tourism industry.

In 2019, Portland welcomed 90 ships to the tune of $1,637,688 in docking fees paid to the city for tying up the municipal Ocean Gateway Terminal, according to city spokesperson Jessica Grondin.

Last year was expected to be a banner year with 131 ships paying a total of $2,626,257.50 to dock.

Instead, no ships came at all. The city’s multimillion dollar terminal has sat empty for more than a year.

In Portland, cruise ships pay a flat fee of $13 per person. The “Independence,” with 96 passengers, would pay the city $1,248. A larger ship with 4,000 passengers would pay $52,000.

Grondin said in addition to city government losing out in 2020, local businesses also felt the loss, though she couldn’t say how much.

“There’s obviously been an impact on businesses who would cater to the cruise ships and receive revenue from tourist spending,” Grondin said. “However, we aren’t able to calculate this.”

Grondin also said it was unclear whether Portland would receive any federal pandemic relief money to make up for the lost docking fees.

This story appears through a media partnership with the Bangor Daily News.