PORTLAND — The Port of Portland expects 20 percent fewer cruise ship passengers in the coming season, as recession-weary travelers avoid high-price vacations and the cruise ship industry experiences weakness in the wake of some high-profile disasters.

Portland expects 59 ships with 68,773 passengers this year, compared with 56 ships and 85,508 passengers in 2011, said Nicole Clegg, spokeswoman for the city.

If this year’s projections prove accurate, Portland’s run of three straight years of increases will end and the total number of passengers will be the lowest since 2008.

The cruise industry is an important part of the tourism economy for Maine and Portland, said Curtis Picard, executive director of the Maine Merchants Association.

“It’s not hard to walk downtown and feel the vibrancy of the cruise industry when a ship is in port,” he said.

Some merchants in Portland said their sales double when a ship visits.

“The cruise impact – it’s huge,” said Tom Largay, owner of the Old Port Candy Co. on Fore Street and Old Port Card Works on Commercial Street.

While exact economic impact figures aren’t available, a study by the University of Maine showed that 47,000 passengers from 31 ships spent $5.8 million to $8 million in Greater Portland’s economy in 2008.

Each cruise passenger spends $80.51 to $109.68 while in port, according to the study. The economic activity associated with that spending supported 69 to 96 full- and part-time jobs in 2008, according to University of Maine economics professor Todd Gabe.

Portland’s 2012 cruise season will start June 1, when the 98-passenger Independence arrives. That ship will be followed by the much larger Carnival Glory, with 2,974 passengers, on June 4.

The city’s largest pier, the new “megaberth,” will host its first ship of the season, the Enchantment, with 2,250 passengers, on Sept. 8, according to the current schedule released by the Port of Portland.

The cruise ship industry has been plagued by recent disasters, particularly the deaths of 32 people in January when the Costa Concordia sank off the coast of Italy. Another Costa ship caught fire and lost power in the Indian Ocean in February.

Other black eyes for the industry range from broad outbreaks of norovirus, which can causes diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain, to the disappearance of a husband during a Mediterranean honeymoon cruise.

Despite the vivid images of the Costa Concordia keeled over, travel industry executives say the economy plays a larger role in cruise bookings than any fear of accidents.

“Bookings stumbled at the start of the year because of the Concordia accident,” said Henry Harteveldt, travel industry analyst with Cambridge-Mass.-based Atmosphere Research Group. “Bookings have begun to rebound — people realize it was an accident.”

Neil Gorfain, chief executive of thecruiseoutlet.com, said, “There’s been softness (in cruise bookings) for basically the past two to three years because of the recession.

He said, “It has to do with the American economy, not the recent incidents.”

Portland has had its own missteps.

The city’s megaberth, built to handle cruise liners as long as 1,200 feet, opened with much fanfare in September. Later that month, the Caribbean Princess left the pier three hours early to escape an unusually low tide. Passengers who got left behind were ferried to the ship before it left Portland Harbor.

City and state officials scrambled to have the shallow, eastern section of the berth dredged. The $280,000 project, paid for with state funds, increased the depth to 35 feet from 28 to 30 feet below mean sea level.

John Henshaw, executive director of the Maine Port Authority, said a group was convened to study the megaberth, also known as Ocean Gateway Pier II. Although the review had been planned, he acknowledged that the incident in September made it more urgent.

“We won’t have a problem this year,” Henshaw said. “The pier should accommodate all ships that want to come.”

Princess Cruises has said the incident would not keep it from bringing passengers to Portland. The Caribbean Princess is not scheduled to return to Portland this year, but is set to come in November, 2013, according to a spokeswoman for the cruise line.

The early departure of the Caribbean Princess did not hurt bookings for the 2012 season, said Clegg, the spokeswoman for the city.

“We weren’t able to start promoting the (megaberth) until it was completed. Some cruise lines book two years in advance, so we will not see the benefits for a few years,” Clegg said. The dredging “expands what the opportunities are for the pier … Now, there’s no concern.”

Travel experts couldn’t explain why there would be fewer cruise ship passengers this year, as the economy improves.

Harteveldt said “hometown cruising,” close to passengers’ homes, has become more popular while the economy has been weak because travelers can avoid the cost of a flight to get to the starting port.

“Travelers are watching their wallets,” Harteveldt said. “Passenger spending is a function of the destination, the amount of time in port, how close the ship is to town and if there’s lots to see and do.”

Most of Portland’s cruise traffic happens in September and October as tourists come for foliage season.

Largay, the shop owner in the Old Port, said business in September and October is typically half that of the peak summer season. But when a cruise ship is in port, a fall day seems like a hectic day in July, he said.

“Traffic doubles. We staff for it in anticipation,” Largay said.

Cruise passengers “grab anything that has to do with Maine,” he said. “And newspapers — those are the only days we sell out of papers, because on board, passengers are starved for news.” Whether cruise passenger are buying postcards and T-shirts or splurging on more expensive items, most merchants agree that their business is welcome.

“Some fancy stores say ‘They don’t do anything for me,’ but at least people see what a great city it is and they might come back,” said Sandra Jones, owner of Something Fishy on Exchange Street. “Anyone who says 2,000 extra people in town does nothing doesn’t understand. They do help business.” 

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