On a sunny summer afternoon, cruise ships converged in Frenchman Bay, vacationers enjoyed ice cream cones and watched the boat traffic from the Bar Harbor waterfront while columns of cars streamed down West Street and into Acadia National Park.
The bustling July scene illustrates Acadia National Park’s continued climb in annual visitation, jumping from 3.3 million in 2016 — the year of Acadia’s centennial celebration and record number of visitors — to 3.515 million in 2017. The 6.5 percent hike is attributed to the below-average rainfall through June, July and August and seasonable temperatures compared to 20-year averages.
Christie Anastasia, Acadia’s public affairs specialist, also noted that use of the fare-free Island Explorer bus service also jumped and a greater number of tour buses visited the park.
“Some of it was due to commercial use,” Anastasia said. “But, it was warm and the weather was good.”
The jump in visitation was not limited to Acadia and Mount Desert Island. The number of visitors vacationing in the Pine Tree State shot up 6 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to Maine Office of Tourism spokeswoman Jennifer Geiger. She noted the higher cost of travel and goods did not deter Americans from taking trips.
While welcoming the surge, hotels, restaurants and other tourism-related Maine businesses were caught short with inadequate seasonal staff to handle the volume of visitors. The cause was the Trump administration’s earlier decision to cap at 66,000 annually the number of foreign workers eligible to stay for six months under the federal H-2B visa program. The previous annual limit was 126,000.
In addition, the issuance of new and returning international students’ J-1 visas, allowing them to work for four months in the United States, also was held up, exacerbating the shortage, according to Greg Dugal, director of government affairs for the Maine Innkeepers, Association. Come summer, thousands of foreign students are employed as waiters, desk clerks, chambermaids and many other seasonal jobs in Maine’s tourism industry.
Responding to the crisis, federal immigation officials added 15,000 to the H-2B cap, but the boost wasn’t adequate and came too late. Some foreign workers didn’t even get to Maine until August in some areas.
“Everyone was able to pull it off, but it doesn’t bode well for the future,” Dugal said. “It puts a lot of pressure on the workforce.”
An estimated 3,000 workers from abroad applied for the temporary work visas in 2017, but only 900 were granted compared to 2,400 in 2016. Last summer, about 80 percent of the foreign workforce was concentrated in Old Orchard Beach, the Wells/Ogunquit area and MDI.
Martha Searchfield, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said the visa program’s cuts had Bar Harbor businesses scrambling to find workers.
“A lot of people ask why businesses don’t hire local people,” Searchfield said. “These businesses hire as many people as they can and it’s hard to find people [on the island] who aren’t working.”
Searchfield also owns the Canterbury Cottage Inn, but she doesn’t employ foreign workers because the visa process is costly and her need is not as great as larger businesses.
Eben Salvatore, who oversees Ocean Properties Ltd.’s nine hotels and inns in Bar Harbor, said the foreign workers visa program is essential and the hotel management company’s enpterprises cannot survive without it.
Ocean Properties typically hires 80 foreign workers for the summer, but its returning seasonal employees either couldn’t obtain or were delayed in getting their visas. Some workers were recruited from Puerto Rico, but language and cultural barriers proved difficult in the heat of the season.
“It would be one thing if we get them in April and try to train them,” Salvatore said. “But when you’re [receiving workers] in the middle of July, it’s pretty much a disaster all around.”
Salvatore, Ocean Properties’ director of operations, says the company’s local inns and hotels will be opening six weeks earlier to get foreign visas processed and be prepared for whatever scenario might unfold in the 2018 tourism season.
“It’s a financial risk given our size,” he said. “You hope it doesn’t happen again, but we have to prepare [for a shortage of workers.]