The number of cruise ship passengers sailing into Portland is on track to nearly double from three years ago, according to projections for the 2018 season. That kind of growth has spurred the city to pitch new waterfront developments in hopes of getting more economic gain from the visitors.

Portland officials expect 119 ships carrying as many as 172,184 passengers to arrive this year, the majority in September and October, an 82 percent increase over 2015.

“The cruise industry is an important piece of Portland’s economic development and one that we continue to market. We continue to see an increase in demand for visits starting earlier in the season, and continued increases each year in the number of ships and passengers,” City Manager Jon Jennings said in an email.

Cruise traffic to the state’s three largest destinations – Portland, Rockland and Bar Harbor – is projected to total at least 335 vessels, about 18 percent more than last year, according to figures from port towns and Patrick Arnold, director of CruiseMaine, the state’s cruise marketing organization. Early projections don’t include visits to other Maine harbors, such as Camden, Belfast, Castine, Bath, Eastport and Bucksport. The number of vessels that actually arrive in 2018 may be less than those scheduled, Arnold noted.

“Where we stand right now, Maine’s brand is excellent and cruise passengers are having a great experience in Maine,” he said.

Arnold’s company, Soli DG, manages the International Marine Terminal in Portland and won a contract last year to manage CruiseMaine. It’s only the second company to run the organization since 2002.

So far, Arnold has focused on hearing from town officials and business owners to get a picture of Maine’s cruise industry before working on new marketing and products for passenger excursions, he said in a recent interview.

“We’ve been more or less in heads-down mode, meeting with ports and stakeholders,” he said. “Before we start taking CruiseMaine in a direction where we are improving on things, we need to take stock of what the ports are doing really well.”

CITY PLANS FOR FUTURE CROWDS

Cruise growth in Maine mirrors worldwide trends. Cruise Lines International Association, a global trade group, estimates that 27.2 million passengers will take a cruise in 2018, a 50 percent increase from 2009.

As Portland looks forward to its busiest cruise year on record, officials already are planning for future crowds. In November, city officials unveiled a redevelopment plan for the Maine State Pier that features a 6,000-square-foot market for fresh seafood and takeout food, a business incubator and event space, and they are considering a new pier at Ocean Gateway. None of the proposals has been funded yet.

“Portland is well-positioned to take advantage of the growth in the cruise industry by having three viable berths and a top-notch operations team able to serve ships of all sizes,” Jennings said. “On top of this, due to the continued vitality of our waterfront and city as a whole, we’re actively discussing conceptual plans to revitalize the Portland Ocean Terminal building on the Maine State Pier with the council and the community.”

GROWTH CONTINUES IN BAR HARBOR

Bar Harbor, the state’s biggest cruise destination, is expecting 179 ships and almost 230,000 passengers in 2018, said Harbormaster Charlie Phippen. Last year, 148 ships carrying 207,360 passengers docked in Bar Harbor, 16 fewer ships than scheduled.

The town is working on managing future ship traffic using an old ferry terminal. The plan was the subject of a contentious campaign last year regarding zoning changes to allow a cruise ship pier at the state-owned property. The ships currently anchor in the harbor and ferry passengers into downtown Bar Harbor, causing traffic and congestion.

In November, a citizen committee recommended that the town buy the old ferry terminal from the Maine Department of Transportation for $3.5 million and develop it as a public multi-use marine facility where passengers could disembark and access ground transportation. The town’s consultant will develop a business plan around those recommendations to present in April, before town voters decide whether to buy the parcel in June, said Town Manager Cornell Knight.

The influx of cruise ships led three towns near Bar Harbor – Mount Desert Island, Tremont and Southwest Harbor – to approve six-month moratoriums on cruise visits last year.

PUTTING PASSENGERS ON BEACHES

Rockland is scheduled to have 38 ships in port this season, compared with 32 last year, Arnold said.

Rockland Harbormaster Matt Ripley said the city needs to invest in its marine infrastructure generally, but doesn’t plan for new cruise-specific improvements.

“Not right now, it really depends on if we can get grant money in the near future and what the City Council would want,” Ripley said.

Cruise ships grab a lot of attention, but account for a fraction of the more than 35 million tourists who visit Maine every year, Arnold said. A real value for the state may be impressing the cruise passengers who are looking for their next destination to consider an onshore vacation, he said.

“Its going to take some time, but cruise ships are a huge opportunity to market the Maine brand and grow our tourism,” he said.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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