Commentary

Opinion: Initiative to restrict cruise ship passengers ‘not Portland-friendly’

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This November, Portland residents will vote on five citizens’ initiatives, four of which were sponsored by the Maine chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Among these DSA-sponsored initiatives is a proposal to limit to 1,000 the aggregate number of cruise ship passengers allowed to disembark on a daily basis. If approved, this restriction would go into effect by 2025.

Tourism is the lifeblood of Maine’s economy. In 2021, the tourism industry supported approximately 143,000 jobs and brought over $14 billion into the state. In 2017, household income generated from tourism-sector jobs totaled more than $2.5 billion. 

According to Sen. Angus King in 2017, “one out of every six jobs in our state is directly related to tourism.”

Sen. Susan Collins has also spoken about the vital nature of Maine’s tourism industry. “The thousands of family-owned businesses that comprise this industry support our farmers and other food producers, artists and craftspeople, landscapers and carpenters, and a host of other suppliers and tradespeople. Tourism drives our economy, funds our schools, and builds strong communities.”

The cruise ship industry plays a critical role in bolstering and sustaining Maine’s summer and early-fall tourism. A 2018 study conducted by the Maine Office of Tourism, in association with CruiseMaine, found that cruise ship passengers had an overall economic impact of approximately $33 million, directly supporting about 400 jobs and bringing in roughly $1.7 million in tax revenue. 

Portland is one of four Maine ports that currently accepts ships with more than 500 passengers. According to the 2023 schedule, 70 ships meeting this description are expected to dock in Portland between April 30, 2023 and November 6, 2023, 67 of which are projected to have more than 1,000 passengers. If the regulations outlined in the initiative were in place for the 2023 season, these larger ships, in all likelihood, would be forced to find another port at which to dock. 

The City of Portland charges cruise ships a flat fee of $13 per person on board. Using the capacity projections on the 2023 schedule, the city can expect to make between $18,616 and $58,500 in 2023 on each ship carrying more than 1,000 passengers. Should this referendum pass and these ships seek alternative ports, the City of Portland could expect to lose somewhere between $1.2 million and $3.9 million in tax revenue.

Passengers’ spending while in port also makes a significant financial impact. It was estimated by Digital Research Inc. that, on average, a cruise ship passenger spends approximately $70 while on shore. In total, it was determined that those disembarking from cruise ships spent $13.3 million shopping, $7.7 million on dining, $2.2 million on entertainment, $1.5 million on transportation, and $4.3 million on other expenses.

Johnny DiMillo, the co-owner and co-manager of DiMillo’s on the Water, called the traffic generated from cruise ships a “godsend” for his business, explaining that it gives them “an extra 30 days of summer.” In September, “nothing compares to the cruise ship business,” DiMillo said. “The impact it has on these local businesses is irreplaceable.”

“Cruise ship business between September 1st and October 1st is a game changer for Portland,” DiMillo added. “This is a tourist town and if we can get an extra 30 days, we need it to survive,” he said. “We have to take advantage of every dollar we can generate.”

Kathy Frappier of Portland Discovery Land and Sea Tours expressed that her business is also impacted by the presence of cruise ships in Portland. 

“We provide trolley tours and boat tours so cruise ships are great for us. On a normal summer day we have two trolleys running. On a cruise ship day we have six,” she said. 

Frappier explained her opposition to the DSA-sponsored ballot initiative. “This is just ill-fated right from the get go,” she said. “You will drive cruise ships away. They’re going to find other ports. That’s just too limiting.” 

Although her business is based in Portland, Frappier herself is not a resident of the city, meaning that she will not have a voice at the ballot box this November, despite the fact her business would be greatly affected by the measure. 

“We don’t even get a say, which makes it even more frustrating,” Frappier said. 

Cary Tyson, the Executive Director of Portland Downtown, also offered his thoughts on the proposal. While he believes it “remains to be seen how it will change tourism,” his “best guess” is that if the proposal were to pass, cruise ships would “dock somewhere else” and, in all likelihood, tourists would “skip the Greater Portland area altogether.” Portland Downtown has not yet taken an official stance on this ballot initiative.

Tom Largay, of Old Port Candy Co. and Old Port Card Works, explained that, in his case, cruise ship passengers are not necessarily “critical” to his survival, but that they are “super nice to have.” Similar to DiMillo and Frappier, Largay noted that Old Port Card Works, located on Commercial Street near the waterfront, sees a noticeable boost in business when a cruise ship is in port, especially during the off-season. 

“It’s like a day in July, but in September,” he said. 

Largay has also witnessed firsthand a bit of return tourism from those who first visited Maine as cruise ship passengers. “I’ve had customers that will come back a year or two later after having first encountered Maine on a cruise ship,” Largay said. 

His anecdotal observations are supported by the State of Maine’s 2018 study of cruise tourism. According to the study, 84% of cruise ship tourists would be “highly likely” to recommend to others a visit to the state and that roughly one-third planned on returning to Maine themselves. 

When asked how he viewed cruise tourism generally, Largay said he thought it was “good for the area,” explaining that “anytime you can shine a spotlight on what Maine has to offer,” you should.

Although cruise ships do bring a lot of people into Portland at once, not all those who disembark there necessarily stay within the city limits during their time on shore. This is where Jason Briggs of VIP Tour and Charter Bus Company comes in. Located just four blocks from where the cruise ships dock, Briggs’ business, as well as other major bus companies, thrive off of the traffic generated from the ships, especially during the early fall months. Similar to Frappier, Briggs expressed frustration that he will not have a voice at the ballot box this November. 

“Because our homes aren’t here [in Portland], we have no voice,” Briggs said.

“If there are 10 buses down there, and 40 or 50 people are on a bus, it means there are 500 people going on a tour in the morning and another 500 in the afternoon.” In addition to bringing in “a great deal” of revenue and tips, Briggs noted that the work he does with cruise ship passengers also brings “a lot of business into the communities where we take people.”

Briggs also discussed the impact that he has seen crew members have during their time in port, pointing out that the conversation surrounding cruise ships often fails to take them into account. In his experience, roughly “a third of the crew will get the day off, and they flock to the Maine Mall…to get their computers fixed at Best Buy…to buy luggage at JCPenny…[or] just to get some basic toiletries.”

Although the 2018 study of cruise tourism does not include granular data concerning the impact of crew members specifically, what it does present supports Briggs’ observations. According to the survey, roughly 23% of crew members disembark while the ship is in port and each spend an average of $67 while on shore.

“It would hurt us, and it would hurt just us,” he said. “Tourism is our biggest industry in Portland, and some people just don’t understand that.”

In the City of Portland, policy created via the referendum process cannot be changed for five years, except by way of another ballot initiative. Therefore, if this proposal is passed by Portland residents this November, the city would have to endure a minimum of two seasons under these regulations before the city council would have the ability to consider repealing or amending them.

Quincy Hentzel, President and CEO of the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce, criticized the city’s referendum process as a whole in an interview with the Portland Press Herald. “These issues really warrant going through the process of the city council. It’s why we elect city councilors… You can’t compromise and you can’t even examine what the negative consequences are going to be… I think there’s a lot of people in the city that are now realizing how dangerous it is to take really robust dynamic policy issues and put it out by a referendum.”

Bar Harbor’s debate over cruise ship restrictions has also been reignited as a result of a citizen’s petition. During a public hearing, however, multiple attorneys raised legal questions concerning a municipality’s ability to enact such regulations. 

According to the Mount Desert Islander, Andy Hamilton, a lawyer for Ocean Properties, stated at the hearing that restricting the number of cruise ship passengers allowed in the town falls under federal authority. “I’ve been practicing land use law in Maine for 38 years, and I can tell you this is beyond the land use jurisdiction of this town. This is beyond the shoreland zoning jurisdiction of this town,” Hamilton said. “That authority has to give way to federal regulation because we’re talking about federal maritime commerce.”  

The Mount Desert Islander also reported that Tim Woodcock, an attorney for an unnamed Bar Harbor business, called into question the proposal’s constitutionality at the hearing. 

“The ordinance is flatly unconstitutional… Under the strength of what is called the Dormant Commerce Clause, the federal government has control over interstate and foreign commerce,” Woodcock said.   

Even setting potential legal challenges aside, restricting the aggregate number of cruise passengers allowed to disembark on a given day is bad news for Portland’s economy. If the DSA’s ballot initiative were to take effect, cruise liners may be forced to rethink their relationship with the City of Portland. The potential impact of this for many locally-owned businesses that count on the traffic generated by cruise ships could prove harmful at best and ruinous at worst.

As Johnny DiMillo put it, the DSA’s proposal is just “not Portland-friendly.”

About Libby Palanza

Libby Palanza, born and raised in southern Maine, is a senior at Harvard College studying Government with a focus on American Politics. She is an active member of the Harvard Institute of Politics and has held leadership positions in several campus organizations. She is currently a Public Policy Intern at Maine Policy Institute and looks forward to pursuing a law degree in the future.

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