Bar Harbor’s Novel Approach to Cruise Ship Berth: Ask Citizens

A friend drew my attention to this New York Times article about the cruise industry in Bar Harbor.

The gist of the story is that Bar Harbor — a town of 5,200 on Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine — has been too successful in attracting cruise ships. In 2017, it saw 163 vessels carrying about 185,000 passengers. (By way of comparison, Sydney expected to see a record-breaking 90 ships carrying 135,000 passengers in 2017.) The town has actually had to cap the number of passengers permitted to come ashore each day at 3,500 in summer and 5,500 in spring and fall.

It’s really interesting to compare and contrast Sydney and Bar Harbor — especially since at the heart of the NYT article is a battle over a cruise ship berth.

Bar Harbor, for example, is an attraction in and of itself, bringing in 3.3 million visitors (including cruise ship passengers) annually. It’s not hard to see why:

Bar Harbor, ME. (Photo by By Mourial (Own work) [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons)

Bar Harbor, ME. (Photo by Mourial, own work, GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons)

As the leading cruise port in the state, Bar Harbor has welcomed the vessels where other towns on Mount Desert Island have banned them. Bar Harbor’s reasons for embracing the industry will sound familiar to residents of the CBRM:

“Before the cruise ships started coming to Bar Harbor, our tourist season ended after Labor Day,” said Kristi Bond, who owns and operates four restaurants downtown. “Now, September and October are two of our busiest months.”

As will the complaints:

Most tourists come by car. Even though they take up all the parking spots and clog the roads, some residents prefer them over ship passengers because they spend more money. They stay longer, check into hotels and eat at restaurants, while ship passengers leave before dinner and overnight at sea.

Bar Harbor is also located near another major tourist attraction, Acadia National Park, and here the comparisons to the Cape Breton Highlands National Park practically draw themselves:


Citizens committee

Interestingly, Bar Harbor has been attracting all this cruise ship traffic without benefit of a cruise ship berth. Ships must anchor in the Bay and ferry passengers ashore in small boats — something we were told, as part of the argument for a second cruise ship berth in Sydney, cruise lines do not like to do.

In June 2017, the town voted on a zoning change that would allow it to buy a nearby, unused ferry terminal that could be used for a number of purposes, including providing a berthing pier for cruise ships.

But the berthing-pier idea alarmed many residents and further roiled debate over how much the town should cater to the cruise ships. At an acrimonious public session, and in polling, most residents rejected a giant pier for the ships, preferring instead a marina that could have many different uses. One group went to court to try to invalidate the June vote. The letters column of the Mount Desert Islander, the local paper, bristled with angry screeds.

And then, as the NYT reports, things took “an interesting turn”:

The town agreed to let a 40-member citizens committee figure out what was in the town’s best interest. The committee took its mission seriously, conducting hours of research on technical issues and holding numerous public meetings. A professional facilitator helped guide the discussions.

The committee produced its report in November, opting against the cruise ship berth:

Rather, it favored converting the ferry terminal into a marina, providing public access for recreational boaters as well as parking, bike rentals and a tram to circulate through town. The cruise ships would still anchor in the bay, but smaller boats could deliver their passengers to the new marina, where they could board tour buses.

Things haven’t been all smooth sailing since — the town council accepted the report but the council chair later said that didn’t mean it would necessarily accept the committee’s recommendations. The fate of the ferry terminal — which the town must pay US$3.5 million to acquire — remains unsettled.

But what an idea: let the people decide how a public resource should be developed. And not just a small group of insiders — a sizable group of residents.

Imagine if we’d taken that approach to the decision to invest in a second berth in Sydney — if we’d empowered a citizens’ committee to do the necessary research instead of relying on numbers from the cruise lines, as we did.

Imagine if we had taken that approach to our CBRM Charter. Mayor Cecil Clarke is calling for “public input” into the charter this month, but what if he’d appointed a citizens’ committee in 2012, when he was first elected, to thoroughly research the proposal? To look at the Halifax Regional Municipality’s charter and see whether it has been a boon to the HRM? To talk to experts in municipal politics, to consider options and make informed recommendations? There is no shortage of thoughtful, committed, interested people in this municipality who would no doubt have taken their responsibilities as seriously as did the citizens of Bar Harbor.

(Oddly enough, I wrote this before I realized the charter would be on this week’s general committee meeting agenda. You can read about it here.)


Featured image: Cruise ship in Bar Harbor, Maine. Photo by Dana Moos from Southwest Harbor, Maine, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.