The Liberty of the Seas – the biggest cruise ship to visit Portland this year – brought more than 5,000 visitors to the city when it docked Saturday.

But the ship pales in comparison to the Anthem of the Seas, which boasts a sky-diving simulator and entertainment area with bumper cars and other attractions. It’s scheduled to bring more than 6,000 people to Portland when it calls next August, the first of three stops it is scheduled to make in the city in 2016.

Neither behemoth could have called directly on Portland before the city’s megaberth, Ocean Gateway, was built in 2011 as a necessary element to accommodate the huge vessels. The investment of $6 million in the large berth seems prescient – next year there will be fewer cruise ships visiting Portland, but they will be larger and bring more passengers.

“It’s a good thing we went ahead and built the berth,” said Bob Leeman, marketing manager of Cruise Portland, the city agency that oversees cruises. “Otherwise we couldn’t get these cruise ships.”

Before the berth was built, the largest cruise ship to call on Portland was the 1,132-foot Queen Mary II, which visited twice in 2004. But it couldn’t berth on the waterfront – the ship had to drop anchor south of Fort Gorges and ferry the passengers to and from the city on small tender boats.

That approach also made reprovisioning the ship more difficult, but vendors now can take goods directly to a ship.

The Anthem of the Seas is 1,142 feet long and will be able to tie up, allowing passengers to come and go without the need for tenders.

Leeman said he accompanied the captain of the Liberty of the Seas – which measures 1,112 feet – on a test run through the harbor when that ship visited Portland at the end of August, and he seemed pleased with the berth.

“It’s working fantastic,” Leeman said. “The captain was happy.”

The berth helps Portland capture a part of the growing market for cruise ships, which as an industry has been growing globally since 2009. According to data compiled by Cruise Line International Association, a trade group for the global cruise ship industry, the number of people electing to take a cruise has risen from 17.3 million in 2009 to 20.3 million in 2015. Of those who took a cruise this year, 62 percent were repeat customers and 68 percent indicated they would take another cruise within three years.

That bodes well for Portland, which has seen the number of cruise passengers increase steadily. Next year, the number of cruise ships pulling into port will be 74 – fewer than this year’s 88 – but the passenger count will be 113,046, an increase of 16.5 percent.

Passengers disembark from the Liberty of the Seas – the largest cruise ship to arrive in Portland this year.

Passengers disembark from the Liberty of the Seas – the largest cruise ship to arrive in Portland this year. Staff photo by Ben McCanna

The Liberty of the Seas’ arrival coincided with the peak of the city’s cruise ship season, which is projected to bring more than 50 ships to port for a day and more than 50,000 passengers to Portland from now through early November. Cruise ships also visit from May through July, but in general, those ships are smaller and the visits more sporadic.

Overall, the city’s projected passenger count for the 2015 cruise season is 97,000.

Portland is part of most cruise lines’ Northeast fall tours. They typically run a week to nine days and include stops in Boston, Portland, Bar Harbor or Rockland, and eastern Canada.

The city markets itself to cruise lines as a port that offers three attractions: Cruise passengers can explore Portland’s shops and restaurants or take bus trips to Freeport or Kennebunk for shopping and sightseeing.

“Portland is well-positioned to take advantage of growth in the industry by having three viable berths and a top-notch operations team able to serve ships of all sizes,” City Manager Jon Jennings said in an email to the Portland Press Herald. “More than marine infrastructure, it’s the city itself that continues to drive demand. Development in the Eastern Waterfront, the maturing of the tours and excursion industry, and the continued vitality of the waterfront, Old Port and Arts Districts combine to provide a world class destination that is only getting better.”

Portland and Bar Harbor get the lion’s share of the cruise ship business in Maine. The industry’s presence has continued to expand over the past five years as more cruise ships dock to take advantage of those foliage tours, day trips to L.L. Bean and lots of local lobster eateries. In 2010, the state hosted 343 cruise ships, while 427 were expected for 2015.

Maine’s Office of Tourism pegged direct spending from the cruise ship industry at $45 million in 2013, the most recent year data were available.

Leeman, though, cautions that the industry can be fickle.

He said shipbuilders are making more vessels that will be looking for new ports of call. According to Cruise Line International Association, there are 33 ocean cruise ships expected to be built between 2015 and 2020.

“It’s a little bit of a game of chance,” said Leeman about whether more ships will pick Portland to visit. “But if we didn’t have the berth, we wouldn’t even be in the game.”

Jennings said the cruise industry has become an important piece of Portland’s economic development, one that the city will continue to market. For the last three years, revenue from berthing fees and taxes exceeded $800,000.

“Not only are we seeing an increased demand for visits starting earlier in the season, and continued increases each year in the number of ships and passengers, but we’re hearing from industry reps who say that the Portland brand would make a great origination destination for the cruise lines,” he said. “We’re actively marketing ourselves for that opportunity, as that would have a huge economic impact on the city in terms of flights in, hotel stays, dining, and our local businesses would have the opportunity to be the purveyors of food and drink for the ship.”

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