Terry McCarthy will tell you point blank that cruise line passengers are the best thing going.

"They leave tens of thousands of dollars around, and it's clean, neat, easy money," he said. "Their demands are negligible. My guys are down there, and it's smooth as a goose."

Mr. McCarthy owns the Dockside shopping complex on the Oak Bluffs waterfront, and his dock is hosting the tenders from cruise ships. His job is the sticky task of corralling these folks - as many as 1,200 off one ship - onto the bulkhead in Oak Bluffs and then back again about three hours later.

Like moths on a porch light, cruise lines have discovered the Island, and Oak Bluffs in particular. Last summer, 31 big ocean liners anchored off East Chop and sent their passengers ashore.

This season, that number will drop to 20, but by next year, according to marina records, as many as 50 cruise ships could stop in Oak Bluffs.

Norwegian Cruise Lines alone will more than triple its Vineyard schedule in 2003, planning to stop in Oak Bluffs 23 times. Other cruise lines - such as Regal Cruises - are planning more trips, too, and marina manager Jim Hardiman told the Gazette yesterday he took a call this week from yet another cruise company asking about making Oak Bluffs one of its new ports of call.

So far, the official reaction in Oak Bluffs to all the extra boat traffic in the harbor and foot traffic on the bulkhead has been to roll out the welcome mat.

Earlier this month, outgoing marina manager Josh Williams presented a proposal to selectmen to spend between $10,000 and $30,000 to improve town docking facilities and build some kind of shelter to shield waiting boat passengers from rain and sun.

Selectmen also gave the green light this week to a high-speed ferry that will begin coming to Oak Bluffs from Quonset Point, R.I., as soon as next summer. That boat could carry up to 1,050 passengers a day.

After selectmen voted unanimously to endorse the high-speed ferry proposal, Harthaven resident Sanford Low questioned board members about the overall impact of passenger traffic to Oak Bluffs.

"Obviously, there's going to be a lot of new people coming. I presume there was some study on the impact," Mr. Low said. "How much can the town stand?"

Selectmen quickly admitted they had commissioned no such study, but they argued that in the case of the Rhode Island high-speed ferry, the deal would not bring extra people to town.

"This service will give people currently traveling to the Vineyard a way not to travel all the way to Woods Hole," said selectman Richard Combra.

Officials in Oak Bluffs appear confident that their town can handle an additional stream of passengers coming to their town, even on top of the ones already arriving on the Hy-Line from Hyannis, the Island Queen from Falmouth and the Schamonchi from New Bedford.

All told, those three boats bring an average of 2,700 passengers a day to Oak Bluffs in July and August. Add in a cruise ship, and that number can jump to nearly 4,000 people.

Renee Balter, president of the Oak Bluffs Association, a civic and business organization in town, tried to look at the issue from a historical perspective.

"People seem to feel that because they're not clogging up the town with cars, that it's very beneficial," she said. "The more passengers, the merrier. If you look at pictures from the late 1800s at people coming off the boats, it was really wall-to-wall people."

Oak Bluffs police chief Joseph Carter said his force can cope, no problem.

"On its face, there's an increase in the number of pedestrians to our very busy and narrow streets, but it's something we prepare for," he said. "It hasn't exacerbated the public safety effort. It's a central part of boosting the economic vitality of the town, and we fully support it."

But there's also another story to the onslaught of day-trippers. Mr. Williams, the marina manager who left the job this month to go back to Seattle, told selectmen earlier this month, "There's a huge burden of crowd control and some safety issues as well."

And this week, Charles Bardelis Jr., co-owner of the Island Queen operation, told selectmen he was concerned about boats and passengers along the bulkhead. "It can get really hectic down there," he said.

Last Friday, the bulkhead was lined nearly 100 deep with cruise passengers waiting to get on a shuttle boat back to the mother ship. Mr. McCarthy's hired hands tried to keep everyone in their place.

"Have your boarding passes ready," they called out.

"Is this the line to go back to the ship?" an elderly woman asked one of the people queued up.

A half-hour later, the tender - which can hold almost 500 people - was loaded up and headed out. But it's not a two-way street getting in and out of this harbor.

The Hy-Line was steaming through on the inbound track and let loose with a warning blast from its horn. The cruise tender quickly slowed and pulled off to the right.

Mr. Hardiman said he doesn't want the harbor to get too congested. The trick, he said, is to make sure cruise ships don't book arrivals to town on the same day.

But members of the town harbor management committee say that there's not much they can do to control the arrival of cruise ships in town. For one thing, the cruises aren't dealing with town docks because they are too small for their tender boats.

They're working with Mr. McCarthy, whose dock can accommodate the larger tender boats. That means he is reaping the landing fees from cruise ships.

Two years ago, selectmen thought they would fatten town coffers with up to $1,000 a week in landing fees from Norwegian Cruise Lines. Selectmen chairman Todd Rebello is hoping to set aside money for next year to improve public docks and begin tapping into the cruise line money stream.

But for now, the cash from the cruise ship business on the Island is going strictly into private hands. For the tour bus company, Island Transport, that means lots of buses - up to 20 at a time when a cruise ship sails in.

Scott Dario, the co-owner of Island Transport, works directly with the cruise lines, charging them between $12 and $15 a head up front for passengers who opt for a two-and-a-half-hour down-Island tour that lands them in Edgartown for an hour of strolling and shopping.

For Island Transport, 800 cruise passengers hopping on a tour bus could net them almost $10,000.

Retailers are also counting the cash on the cruise ship days. "We're happy with them," said Laurie Welch, owner of Basics Clothing Company and Eastaway on Circuit avenue. "I sure would welcome more stops."

Mr. Rebello, himself a downtown businessman, said his board's priority is creating "a productive business community."

But Fred Sonnenberg, a member of the harbor management committee, sounded a more cautious note in the wake of cruise ships coming to the Island.

"The harbor committee is concerned about getting a share of the money that these people cost us - in bathroom use or police to maintain them," he said. "Who's getting the money is private enterprise. I'm not sure the town is in the business of fostering private enterprise."

Mr. Sonnenberg also pointed out that the town bulkhead is being used to conduct private business when passengers line up there to get back on the tenders. "It's an issue that will be addressed over the next year," he said.

Even Ms. Welch, the retailer on Circuit avenue, has some misgivings about the cruise ships. Last summer, she was out boating when she saw one of the ocean liners pull out.

"A gigantic plume of disgusting smoke filled the air," she said. "On the economic side you love them, but on the environmental side, I don't know."