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Bar Harbor’s Changing Role as
Maine’s Flagship Port

2022 was the year Bar Harbor saw two initiatives to reduce cruise visitation pass: one by a Town Council vote and one by a direct ballot measure. 2023, however, was the year the impacts of these two votes began to be felt. Although both votes sought to reduce cruise visitation numbers, the scale of those reductions and the method for achieving them varied dramatically from one another. The Town Council’s New Cruise Management Plan In the latter half of 2022, the town council endorsed a newly negotiated memorandum of agreement with each visiting cruise line, instituting a 30% reduction in the voluntary daily passenger caps that had been in place since 2008. The MOAs also added new monthly passenger caps with the goal of creating days without cruise ships in port during the peak cruise season of September and October. The MOAs stipulated that any ship visits booked under the prior passenger caps would still be honored, which meant 2023 became a transitional year in which the actual reduction was about 18% rather than the 30% anticipated once the MOAs are fully implemented. The Citizens Initiative In November 2022, Bar Harbor residents voted 58% – 42% in favor of a citizen-initiated referendum that would limit debarking passengers from cruise ships to 1,000 people per day. If fully implemented, this ordinance would likely result in more than 90% of current cruise visitation to cease, as opposed to the 30% intended with the Town Council’s negotiated MOA process.

A few weeks after the vote, the town faced legal action when a group of local businesses and harbor pilots filed lawsuits challenging the constitutionality of the measure. These two legal challenges were quickly merged into one that initiated litigation proceedings in 2023. With the promise of an expedited decision by the court, the Town Council voted not to enforce the ordinance in 2023 but to continue developing the rules for its implementation should it be upheld. A bench trial took place in July 2023, and by year end, the judge had all final post-trial briefs in hand. In March 2024, the judge issued a decision upholding the ordinance passed by citizen initiative, with one exception. The exception, where the judge instead found in favor of the plantiffs, involves the restriction on crew disembarkations. The case is on-going with appeals filed, and it continues to garner attention from the industry. In the meantime, cruise visitation has already begun shifting to other ports in Maine and across the region. That trend continues in 2024.

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