The Universal Notebook: Crackdown on cruise ships

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In the ongoing wake of the coronavirus, you’d think cruise ships would be things of the past. The cruise industry worldwide was cut in half from 29.7 million passengers pre-pandemic to 13.9 million in 2021. But the big bad ships seem to be making a comeback.

Cruise ships are floating germ factories whether they are spreading Legionnaires’ disease or COVID-19. They also foul the seas and pollute the ports wherever they go, but Portland doesn’t seem to care.

Edgar Allen BeemPortland voters will be asked in November whether they want to limit the number of cruise ship passengers discharged to 1,000 a day (Portland Phoenix, Sept. 7). Even though the City Council sent the limit to the voters, some city and state officials are urging voters to defeat the question while promising to develop a more workable control on the cruise passengers crawling all over the city.

The problem with cruise ships is scale. All you have to do is walk past the Ocean Gateway terminal when a monster cruise ship is tied up to see that it’s just too damn big.

You get a behemoth like Norwegian Joy that carries 3,800 passengers and 1,800 crew and that’s 5,600 strangers arriving on the waterfront at once. That’s like having the entire population of Bar Harbor show up on your doorstep. And Portland has 70 of these vessels visiting this year.

About a decade ago, Maine passed a law that prohibits the discharge of gray water and treated sewage into state waters; Casco Bay, Boothbay, Kennebunk, Mount Desert, and West Penobscot Bay were designated no-discharge zones. The fact that a state would even need such laws to keep passenger ships from dumping filth into its waters tells you there’s a real problem.

According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, in one week a 3,000-passenger cruise ship generates 1 million gallons of gray water, 210,000 gallons of sewage, 25,000 of oily bilge water, 100 gallons of toxic waste, 50 tons of garbage and solid waste, and diesel emissions “similar to levels in highly polluted urban areas.”

Does it make you feel better that cruise ships have to be three miles from the Maine coast before they discharge their filth into the North Atlantic? Not me. 

And maybe if Portland limited cruise ships to smaller vessels the resultant reduction in ship traffic might cut down on ship strikes of whales and get federal regulators to stop hassling lobstermen. Cruise ships kill a lot more whales than lobstering does.

Folks in the hospitality industry will argue that cruise ships are good for business, filling streets with perambulating pedestrians with pennies in their pockets. But cruise ship passengers purchase package deals. They eat rubber chicken onboard. They don’t frequent Scales, Street & Company, or Fore Street.

A 2018 survey of cruise ship passengers in Maine concluded that cruise ships generate $33 million in economic impact, $1.7 million in taxes, and support 400 jobs. That’s not nothing, but it’s not much either; $33 million is what Mainers spent on face masks in 2020.

The average passenger spends a mere $70 in each port visited. Not $70 a day, $70 total. That’s basically a couple of ice cream cones, a few postcards, and maybe a guided tour. Chump change.

Ultimately, what Portland voters will need to ask themselves when it comes to cruise ships – indeed when it comes to the hospitality and hotel industries – is “Who does Portland exist to serve?” Is it residents or visitors? Right now the scales are tipped in favor of visitors.

Edgar Allen Beem has been writing The Universal Notebook weekly since 2003, first for The Forecaster and now for the Phoenix. He also writes the Art Seen feature.

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