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Maine businesses adapt as return of large cruise ships seems unlikely until 2022

A 2018 survey by CruiseMaine indicates 400,000 cruise visitors spent $29 million in our state and were likely to recommend a trip to Maine to others.

PORTLAND, Maine — Nearly one week before the beginning of July, Commercial Street in Portland is bustling. The energy is electric, buzzing with excited people who are ready for new experiences following a global pandemic, and it's not even peak summer season yet. 

While the streets represent a callback to 2019, the horizon along the water looks a bit different. Some smaller, domestic cruise ships through American Cruise Lines are making their way into Portland's Ocean Gateway and up the coastline to Bar Harbor this season, but the larger ones likely won't be making an appearance in any of Maine's ports this summer or fall.

"We are so intertwined with Canada in our large ship cruise business," Sarah Flink, the executive director of CruiseMaine, explained. "Those larger ships need to call in a foreign port, due to a pretty obscure maritime law and Canada remains close to ships through the rest of 2021."

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That dent in tourism via the cruise industry is a disappointing realization for port cities and towns around the state, from Portland to Bar Harbor. 

"The cruise ships really were that extra amount of people coming in that didn't take up road space and parking space," Lynn Tillotson, the president, and CEO of Visit Portland, said, noting small businesses in the city often rely on cruises to fill any gaps in traffic during the week.

"Each day that passes where restrictions are not lifted is another day less likely that we'll see cruise ship visitors in large numbers," Alf Anderson, the executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, shook his head via Zoom. He says the American Cruise Lines boats hold about 50 guests -- in no way close to the number of people the larger vessels hold. He says the negative impact is strongest on businesses that have built cruise visitation into their business model. The only thing to do, he says, is to take it as it comes.

"Some of those businesses thankfully are keeping up with that potential lost business through other means," Anderson said optimistically. 

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In 2018, CruiseMaine conducted a survey and found 400,000 cruise visitors spent $29 million in our state. When combined with indirect spending, that number increased to about $33 million in overall economic impact, supporting almost 400 jobs and providing $1.7 million in tax revenue. Eight out of 10 visitors were likely to recommend a trip to Maine to others based on their time onshore.

RELATED: CDC lowers warning for cruises, recommends only fully vaccinated travel

During another irregular tourism season, the good news is business is already booming at a number of local restaurants and shops in Portland -- in some cases at surprising levels. 

"Whether or not the ships come, I think it's still going to be a very busy season for every restaurant in Portland," Carissa Fifield, the assistant general manager at Portland Lobster Company, expressed. She says cruise ships have brought in an overwhelming, but positive, number of tourists in the past. While she says the restaurant appreciates the surge, there's still a lot of foot traffic this year. In fact, it may be busier than 2019. 

"We've seen a lot of tourism so far. I mean, more probably than we expected," Fifield noted.

It's a similar situation at DiMillo's on The Water, just a few hundred feet away.

"We're seeing peak season crowds right now," Johnny DiMillo, the co-manager and co-owner of the restaurant, said, joking, "We don't know why, but we don't care. We're just happy that they're here."

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DiMillo says a shortage of workers is causing different issues, though, for the restaurant. Other co-owner Steve DiMillo remarked in an email to NEWS CENTER Maine that if cruise crowds were here, the restaurant may not be able to keep up.

"It's been incredibly difficult, and it's actually keeping us from doing the numbers that we want to do," Johnny DiMillo said. "Right now, our kitchen staff is probably at 60 percent."

Even businesses outside of the restaurant industry, like the Old Port Card Works, are struggling to keep up with demand. 

"Obviously, we want the business, but I don't think it's going to hurt us as much as it would in a normal year," Tom Largay, owner of Old Port Card Works said. The main concern is not having that reliable business in the fall, once the summer crowds begin to wane. 

"We understand why they're not going to be here this year, but hopefully they plan to come back next year when things are a little more settled down, a little more back to normal," Largay emphasized. 

Johnny DiMillo calls the fall cruise ships a "godsend", noting it gives the restaurant an extended 30 to 40 days of summer revenue that helps them stay alive during the slow winter months. The fact is that the issue is out of their hands at this point, DiMillo says and so the goal is to remain optimistic and hope for a continued high volume of tourists on land, based on springtime numbers.

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The good news is this problem isn't expected to last forever. Flink says that experts she has been listening to say they expect a V-shaped recovery...a strong comeback after this dip down, hopefully starting in 2022. 

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