Maine’s cruise ship season is drawing to a close after bringing more than 200,000 people to the state, setting a record in Bar Harbor for the most ships visiting in a year, and marking the first time Maine fishermen provided lobster directly to cruise lines.

Anecdotally, retailers say the influx of cruise ship passengers, especially in the fall, has been good for business this year.

Retailers and restaurants differ on how much those passengers actually spend on shore, but many said the fall “leaf peeper” cruises help fill the lag time between the summer tourism season and the holiday shopping season.

The cruise season starts on June 1, but the most popular time for cruises is September and October.

“That it’s right after summer makes it an extension of the season. There would normally be a lull between the summer and the holidays, but now there’s consistent flow of traffic,” said Rania Levine, manager of Treehouse Toys on Exchange Street in Portland.

Other retailers said tourists’ purchases vary by ship. European visitors tend to be bigger spenders and want unique merchandise, said Lynne Thomas-Harrison, a sales associate at the Tavecchia clothing retailer on Exchange Street.

“We’re glad to have the cruise ships. … There’s so much Internet shopping these days. It’s nice to have a new wave of visitors to the store,” said Thomas-Harrison.

While some cruise passengers spend their day shopping, others take excursions ranging from shopping in Freeport to working a lobster boat to taking Segway tours around town.

DiMillo’s on the Water said it gets a huge surge in business when a cruise ship is in Portland.

“We can double our head count at lunch on the days a cruise ship is in town,” said Johnny DiMillo, one of the owners. “It’s night and day how beneficial it is.”

DiMillo’s can have a lunch crowd of 400 to 500 on a cruise day, compared with its normal crowd of 250, DiMillo said. The restaurant schedules one-third more workers to handle the cruise crowds.

“Some ships have a difference in the guest demographics — some ships have passengers with more disposable income. But there hasn’t been a cruise day that wasn’t important to our business,” DiMillo said.

Some businesses hope the relationships forged this season will yield benefits in the future.

Ready Seafood Co. of Portland supplied Celebrity Cruises and Norwegian Cruise Lines with lobster during a season when lobster prices plummeted to the lowest level in about 30 years and new demand was needed.

“We sold them a good amount of live lobster, but the trophy at the end of the day is maintaining that relationship,” said John Ready, co-owner of Ready Seafood.

Ready said his company supplied weekly shipments of lobster to the cruise lines, but couldn’t estimate the total tonnage.

The Trenton Bridge Lobster Pound in Hancock County sold lobster to Holland America when the cruise line visited Bar Harbor.

Ready said his company will attend the cruise industry convention in Florida next month to maintain relationships established this year and make new connections with other cruise lines to show them that Maine has more to offer than lobster, such other seafood and local produce, Ready said.

“Next year, it could be other local suppliers working with the cruise lines. But you need pilot programs. We were the guinea pigs. Hopefully, it will open to door for others,” Ready said.

The exact economic impact of the cruise industry is difficult to quantify because Portland and other Maine ports don’t track passengers’ spending.

A study commissioned by the Cruise Line International Association said Maine drew about $45 million in direct spending from the cruise industry last year, a nearly 25 percent increase over 2010. The industry generated 795 jobs in Maine in 2011, up 15 percent from 2010, and wages totaling $25 million, according to the study.

A study by the University of Maine showed that about 47,000 passengers from 31 ships spent $5.8 million to $8 million in Greater Portland’s economy in 2008. Each passenger spent between $80.51 to $109.68 while in port, according to the study. More recent data was not available.

Maine’s cruise season will end on Halloween. Bar Harbor will close the season after hosting 111 ships with about 135,000 passengers, up from its 2010 record of 107 ships, said Charlie Phippen, Bar Harbor’s harbor master. Bar Harbor hosted 106 ships last year.

“The economy doesn’t seem to have impacted cruise visitation compared with regular boating visits, which has been down during the recession,” Phippen said. “Cruise visits have been holding pretty steady.”

Portland hosted 59 ships with 68,773 passengers, compared with 56 ships with 85,508 passengers a year ago, according to the Port of Portland. Boothbay, Eastport and Rockland also host cruise ships.

“I think it’s been a very productive and prosperous year, given that we had many multiple ship days with activity in Eastport, Bar Harbor, Rockland, and Portland all in one day this fall,” said Amy Powers, director of CruiseMaineUSA, an industry group that promotes cruising in Maine.

Sept. 28 was Maine’s busiest cruise day ever, with four ports hosting ships simultaneously. In October alone, Maine’s ports are expected to host a total of 65 cruise ships.

“I cannot say that we have ever experienced that type of volume in October before,” Powers said.

Other highlights of the season included a visit by one of the largest yachts in the world, the 82-room Rising Sun, which is 453 feet long and cost more than $200 million to build. The ship was built for Oracle’s co-founder Larry Ellison, and was bought two years ago by David Geffen, a billionaire record executive and film producer.

The World, a floating condo complex that has visited more than 800 ports in 140 countries since it set sail in 2002, visited Eastport, Bar Harbor, Rockland and Portland.

 

Staff Writer Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at: [email protected]