PORTLAND — The cruise season kicks off today with the arrival of the Independence, the first of dozens of ships that will visit Portland through the end of October.

The Independence, with a capacity of 98 passengers, will arrive at 5 p.m. and depart at 1:30 p.m. Saturday. It will be followed Monday morning by the much larger Carnival Glory, capacity 2,974 passengers. The Carnival Glory will spend the day in Portland and head out at 6 p.m. Monday.

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

In all, 59 ships with a total capacity of 69,373 passengers will dock at the Port of Portland this season. That compares with 56 ships and 85,508 passengers in 2011.

“We are down in passengers from last year, but that was a record year,” said Bob Leeman, director of the city’s port. “We’re getting inquiries from much larger ships about next year and that’s because of the megaberth. Next year looks really good.”

The cruise industry is a boon to city merchants, some of which report twice the sales volume on cruise days compared with normal ones.

A study by the University of Maine reported that 47,000 passengers from 31 ships spent $5.8 million to $8 million in Greater Portland’s economy in 2008. Each cruise passenger spent $80.51 to $109.68 while in port, according to the study.

Besides visiting the city, passengers on ships docked in Portland also take excursions to tourist destinations such as Freeport, Kennebunkport and lighthouses, Leeman said.

“It’s very exciting for the port to start the season. It’s good for the city and the merchants,” he said.

Other cruise ships expected to call this season include The World, which has 165 apartments and studios and serves as a residence for several hundred people from 40 countries, said Nicole Clegg, spokeswoman for the city. This year, Portland also welcomes a new cruise line, Oceania, with two visits by one of its ships, the MV Regatta.

The megaberth, built to handle cruise liners as long as 1,200 feet, opened in September, but suffered a hiccup just weeks later.

Because the water at one end of the pier was too shallow, the Caribbean Princess was forced to leave the pier three hours early to escape an unusually low tide. Passengers 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 below mean sea level from 28 to 30 feet below.

Staff Writer Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

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