A lobster boat motors past the cruise ship Celebrity Summit docked in Portland Harbor on June 25. A recent state report estimates per passenger spending at just under $62, a far cry from the $110 heralded in a 2009 report. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

FREEPORT — For more than a decade, Maine ports have been told that cruise ship passengers each spend a daily average of nearly $110 ashore, an economic boon that’s pumps tens of millions into the coastal Maine annually.

But a new study funded by the state of Maine and its cruise industry promotion partner, CruiseMaine, found the figure was under $62, just over half what was previously contemplated, even as it touted the overall benefit to the state’s economy.

The $100,000 study, by the Portland-based DPA consultancy, was based on detailed surveys of 2,535 passengers coming ashore at nine Maine ports from July to November last year, though the vast majority surveyed disembarked at the big three destinations: Bar Harbor, Portland and Rockland. The report found that 400,000 cruise ship passengers and crew spent about $29 million on their visits to Maine.

It did not break passenger spending out by port, nor did it seek to answer a pressing question for decision makers in destination towns: Is there a significant difference in per passenger spending between small, “expedition class” cruise ships (which typically host 50 to 200 passengers) and the larger ones (which can carry 4,000 or more)?

The report appeared to confirm a 2018 analysis by the Portland Press Herald that concluded per passenger spending in Portland was probably only about half what previous studies had estimated, because of a series of methodological errors in the one and only study that had been conducted in the city. “The bottom line: Cruise tourism is making money for the city, but not as much as everyone thinks,” the five-part series said.

Portland Mayor Ethan Strimling said he wasn’t surprised by the low numbers. “I hear from businesses all the time that cruise ship passengers don’t spend much in their stores,” he said via email. “A few restaurants certainly get customers, but it doesn’t seem to go much deeper.

“I imagine if you carved that $61 to what they spend in Portland, it would be half that,” he added, a reference to the fact that shore visitors spend some of their time and money in Freeport, South Portland, and other locations outside his city’s boundaries.

EXPANDING VISITS

Cruise ship tourism in Maine has rapidly expanded, from 130,000 passengers in 2002 to an estimated 400,000 this year, with most arriving in Bar Harbor or Portland. The growth has prompted contentious debates in some communities – especially Bar Harbor and Rockland– over how much future growth is desirable and the size of the net benefits to the towns.

The report, released Aug. 8, listed passenger spending at $69 per visit. But a deeper look found passenger spending in Maine to be $61.76 – the number it used to calculate all other economic benefits to the state – information that was disclosed in an asterisked note. The higher figure had included the 50 percent markup cruise lines add to the shore excursions they promote and sell onboard the ships, money that never reaches Maine and is therefore not included in studies of passenger spending benefits for ports of call. Crew members were estimated to have spent almost $67 per visit.

Sarah Flink, director of CruiseMaine, the state entity that promotes and supports Maine cruise ship ports, would only respond to questions in writing. She said the report was commissioned in June 2018 and aimed to set a baseline for tourism officials to assess the effectiveness of culture marketing efforts aimed at cruise visitors. She said the state had the option to have DPA further crunch the data to provide information of interest to port communities, “including port- and vessel-specific results regarding passenger spending.”

Asked why the report emphasized the misleading passenger spending number, Flink said it “clearly and accurately reports the information collected on passenger spending in Maine,” by laying out both figures.

WELCOME INFORMATION

The only previous study of passenger spending in Portland was conducted by a team led by tourism researcher Todd Gabe of the University of Maine and released in 2009. It claimed each passenger spent $109.68, but failed to properly account for cruise ship occupancy, the number of passengers in a party, and for the fact that at least half of the money passengers spend on cruise line-sponsored shore excursions is taken by the cruise lines as a markup, and never reaches Maine.

Asked about the divergence between his results and those of DPA, Gabe said via email that several factors were at work. He said the wording of survey questions can affect how much spending passengers report and that his report had handled cruise line-sponsored shore excursions differently from DPA’s.

Gabe was also the lead author on two earlier studies of passenger spending in Bar Harbor. One in 2003 estimated each visitor spent $105.82 ashore and another based on 2016 passenger surveys estimated $108.21, including excursions purchased from the cruise lines.

Gabe and his colleagues have yet to revisit Portland, but in October they released the results of a new study on Bar Harbor that found per passenger spending there to be between $89 and $122 per person, depending on whether the survey asked about an individual’s personal spending or the spending of their family or party.  Gabe added that survey data suggested passengers spent more each day in Bar Harbor than they did in other Maine ports overall, and that might account for some of the discrepancy.

Bar Harbor Town Manager Cornell Knight said he was not concerned about the lower figures in the DPA study, because the recent Gabe study provided the town with what it needed. “We just had a study done a couple of years ago, so we have the information,” he said.

“It’s interesting that another study shows slightly less per passenger spending, but still it shows that it is a significant economic impact to the state of Maine,” Knight added.

Stephen Coston, a financial adviser and hotel owner who serves on the Bar Harbor Town Council, said as a decision maker he’d like to have port- and vessel-specific data, but that he had no doubt the cruise industry was providing significant economic benefits to his community.

“The owners of good-sized individual retail and restaurant businesses tell me the impact of the ships is so great for them, that if they were to stop coming altogether, they would be out of business,” Coston said. “Cruise ships have become very contentious here, but there are lots of things on the positive side that get ignored.”


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