Cruise control: No room to spare on the waterfront

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The cold ocean breeze rustles the empty trees that line Commercial Street as the final cruise ship of the season docks at Ocean Gateway. Victory 1, the first and last ship of November, holds 58 passengers as its counterpart, Victory II, did three days earlier.

Traveling between Boston and Halifax, these ships are just two of the 100 vessels that berthed in Portland this season.

Anthem of the Seas docks at Portland’s Ocean Gateway in October. The ship carries about 6,500 people. (Portland Phoenix/Jenny Ibsen)

Ocean Gateway, which opened just over a decade ago, hosts two docks with a combined length of 1,600 feet, enough to support some of the largest cruise ships in the world. The largest of these ships is the Anthem of the Seas, which visited Portland five times this season with nearly 6,500 people on board each visit.

In total, the Port of Portland welcomed more than 500,000 passengers and 60,000 crew members from May to Nov. 1, setting a record for cruise visitors in the city.

“Certainly you know that there are benefits to having cruise ships in the harbor,” Bill Needelman, the city’s waterfront coordinator, said. “… But none of it will matter if the reputation of the port suffers from being too congested and therefore a place that passengers don’t want to go.”

Crowded Commercial Street is a familiar summer sight in Portland. And with a record number of passengers this season, street congestion is a growing concern.

“I’m not so sure how much more you could do,” Jessica Grondin, the city’s communications director. The next level of growth she said, would be cruises that originate in Portland.

“I think that’s something we’ve looked into,” she said, “but I don’t think it’s been possible for a few other reasons.”

The growth of Portland’s cruise industry, however, is not just measured by the number of passengers.

This year, the harbor supported more larger ships than in previous years, which is a reason for its record, according to Grondin.

“We kind of see it as a piece of our overall economic development and tourism plans, putting Portland on the map and getting some additional revenue from non-taxpayer sources,” she said Nov. 1.

When cruise passengers arrive in port, the cruise line is responsible for paying port fees to the city. For ships with more than 1,000 passengers, the tax is $12 per person, while for ships with fewer than 1,000 passengers, the fee is $8 per head, according to Sarah Flink, executive director of CruiseMaine, a public-private cruise industry promotion group.

“We realize that we can’t just be relying on taxpayer money to continue to do the things that Portland wants to do as a city overall,” Grondin said.

While the city creates revenue from taxes, it also benefits from cruise ship passengers spending on shore and on cruise line-organized excursions.

For more than a decade, Maine estimated passengers spent $110 a person on each visit, based on a study conducted by the University of Maine.

A new study, published in August and funded by the Maine Office of Tourism and CruiseMaine, found passengers are only spending around $70.

“For us, the point that we find interesting are the people, who are maybe not spending that much while they’re here, but have then gotten a taste of Portland and had never been here before,” Grondin said.

The study, which surveyed 2,535 passengers from nine ports in Maine from July through November last year, was conducted by DPA, a Portland-based tourism data consulting group.

Eight of ten passengers are “highly satisfied” with their time on-shore, which is relatively high, according to Travis Burnett, an associate researcher at DPA.

More than half of cruise passengers are also first-time visitors to Maine, and one-third of all passengers say they are likely to return to the state, according to the study.

Although the study revealed passengers spend less than previously reported, the largest takeaways are that cruise is a great way to bring first-time visitors to Maine, and that visitors are tremendous ambassadors to share their experiences with others, according to Flink.

“This is a real shot in the arm economically in our shoulder season,” she said in an interview Oct. 22. While Maine has a steady summer tourist season, the peak cruise season aligns with fall foliage. “That’s when other types of summer tourism are starting to taper off,” Flink said.

Four out of 10 passenger trips on-shore include an excursion — a local trip organized by the cruise line and purchased through the line, at an average cost of $60 per person.

Greg Gordon, a Portland-based excursion organizer for Destinations North America, coordinates tours in Bar Harbor, Rockland and Portland with nearly a dozen cruise lines and has been working with the cruise lines for nearly two decades.

“If you were going to come to the state of Maine for yourself, where do you want to go or what do you want to do?,” Gordon asked during an interview on Oct. 31.

Trips through Destinations North America range from lobster boat cruises to visits to Portland Headlight, and on a longer day can even include a trip to Mount Washington and back.

“You probably want to visit a lighthouse, you want to understand the community you’re visiting,” Gordon said, answering his own question. “For a lot of people, (visiting Mount Washington) is kind of a bucket-list experience that you can do from Portland.”

The cruise ship experience in Portland may be growing, but it isn’t exactly new.

A vacation planner published in 1970 by the Maine Department of Economic Development boasted that the Port of Portland had 12 approved vessels that could hold up to 1,316 passengers for tours in the city and along the coast.

“A newcomer to the Maine coast finds it so vast and varied he soon realizes it would take a long, long vacation (like most of a lifetime) to explore it all,” the pamphlet says.

Cruise excursions ranged from a one-hour cruise at $1.25 to week-long trips up to $175. Though cruise vessels and infrastructure to support this industry has naturally transformed over time, the tourist zeitgeist has not changed that much.

“Twenty years ago, if someone said we’re going to have 100 ships, which is what we were projected to have this year … it would have felt utterly overwhelming,” Flink said.

The important factor is to make sure that port towns are employing good destination management practices alongside any growth, she said. Such practices include controlling traffic and pedestrian flow, managing tour buses, communicating with local businesses, and working with the municipality to determine an appropriate rate of growth.

For Portland, congestion on Commercial Street has been the recurring concern.

“That’s really our core focus right now — not necessarily trying to blow any passenger count out of the water,” Grondin explained. “It’s just been about steady growth, but also managing all the other priorities going down there.”

On Aug. 13, city officials, property owners, and residents met to discuss design concepts to decongest Commercial Street. The meeting was part of the development of the Master Plan for Commercial Street, organized by the city in collaboration with the Maine Department of Transportation and Portland Area Comprehensive Transportation System, or PACTS.

Congested streets are not only a challenge for visitors, but for fishermen and waterfront business owners who use Commercial Street for its waterfront access on a daily basis, Grondin said.

An informal poll of people at the meeting showed loading areas and marine staging are elements of the highest priority, while improved pedestrian access and transit service were next in importance. Three proposed concepts for redesign of Commercial Street included parking for marine employees, Fish Pier staging, fewer crosswalks, and bus and bike lanes.

“Not only do we not want to burden the city with too much of a good thing,” Needelman said, “we want the passengers to feel as though they are having a quality experience so that they want to come back either on a cruise ship or by some other means.”

As the tourism industry grows, Portland must ensure that there is sufficient infrastructure to support the influx of visitors, while also preserving the qualities that support the harbor as a working waterfront.

“It’s incumbent on all of us to not only take care of the city, and not overburden the city, but also to protect that passenger experience,” Needelman said.

While the Victory 1 finishes docking, the salty air breezes over the few visitors walking down Commercial Street for the first time. After a full season of welcoming fresh faces to Maine, the street feels quiet of newcomers for now, and will feel quieter until next season.

“It’s very much a balancing act,” Grondin said. “I think we’d all agree that our waterfront is pretty unique and we’re not looking to disrupt anything that makes it special.”