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Bar Harbor will hold off on reducing cruise ship visits for 2022

In this June 4, 2010 photo, passengers from the Maasdam, a 719-foot cruise ship, board a shuttle boat for a day trip to Bar Harbor, Maine.
Robert F. Bukaty
In this June 4, 2010 photo, passengers from the Maasdam, a 719-foot cruise ship, board a shuttle boat for a day trip to Bar Harbor, Maine.

Bar Harbor will not impose new limits on the number of cruise ships and passengers visiting the town this summer.

The Bar Harbor Town Council instead decided it will form a new group to negotiate with the cruise ship industry for 2023 and beyond.

Councilors acknowledged the decision will likely disappoint many community members, who say the passengers overwhelm the town during a busy tourist season.

They said they were hopeful they could limit the number of large ships entering the harbor for this upcoming summer. But there just isn't enough time to impose new limits on the cruise ship industry before the season starts in a few months.

"I would love for this group to focus on 2023 and forward," Kevin Sutherland, Bar Harbor's town manager, said during Tuesday night's council meeting. "I know the community is upset about 2022, but I think we lost that chance to address it a year ago."

The council spoke with attorneys last month about potentially reducing cruise ship visits in the wake of the pandemic.

Town Council Vice-Chairman Matt Hochman said setting new limits now could unleash too much legal risk.

"While I absolutely want to see a reduction in ships, especially for 2022, I believe that if this action were to pass... we would end up with an injunction barring it anyway and we would incur significant costs," he said during the council's Tuesday night meeting.

No large ships visited Bar Harbor last year, yet the town had its busiest tourist season on record. More than 4 million people visited Acadia National Park in 2021, a new record.

Councilor Erin Cough said she agrees the town needs more time to work out a new policy limiting cruise ships. Like many in the community, she worries how the town will handle the ships' return.

"If we were to look at what our tourism was last year and saw how stretched our public safety departments were, that's a fear," she said. "Going into this 2022 cruise ship season knowing that there's going to be a couple hundred-thousand people coming in is a fear."

A 2021 survey of Bar Harbor residents found more than half had a negative perception of cruise ships and believed the passengers overwhelmed the town.

The council briefly debated a motion on Tuesday night that would have imposed a 30% cut on the number cruise ship visits for 2022, but councilors struck it down.

"For various reasons, unfortunately 2022 is going to be a real hurdle, legally and court-challenge-wise and things like that," Joe Minutolo, a town council member, said. "[For the] long game, 2023, we got to move the needle. This has gone on way too long; it's painful."