SOUTHWEST HARBOR — When the pandemic hit last spring, the charter boat and tour industry thought it was sunk.
“I thought, ‘This is it.’ This is the end of my business,” said Shane Ellis, who runs Ellis Boat Charters in Southwest Harbor.
Bookings dropped off the map as the season was just about to start, he wondered how he would survive and even pondered selling off some of the boats.
But things turned around the middle of the summer and many businesses reported they were as busy as they could be under state regulations.
“We kind of lost July and part of August, before everyone went stir crazy and wanted to go on vacation,” Ellis said.
He ended up not having enough boats as people scrambled for ways to enjoy themselves in the great outdoors during COVID-19.
The phones have already started ringing again for this upcoming season, which most expect will be as busy as ever.
James Allen runs Lulu Lobster Boat in Bar Harbor and Sea Princess Cruises in Northeast Harbor. He saw his business go down about 75 percent on a normal year but was able to get by with Payroll Protection Program funds and deferred loans.
He wasn’t able to run the lobster or scenic tours at all for the beginning of the season and operated at 50 percent capacity starting in July. But pre-bookings for the two boats are up 50 percent from this time last year.
“This year is going to be interesting,” Allen said. “I think it’s going to be very, very busy.”
He plans to run the boats at a reduced capacity again this summer and customers will have to keep their masks on, whether they’re vaccinated or not.
Although it will likely be busy, Allen expected this summer would be easier because everyone now hopefully knows the rules of the road, and health regulations likely won’t change from week to week like they did last year.
“For me, it’s a lot less stressful than last year because we know what we are getting into,” he said.
Some weren’t able to capitalize even on a reduced capacity.
Thomas Curtis, who owns his fishing charter company Verona Island Charter Services out of Bucksport, wasn’t able to run any charters because he winters in Costa Rica and didn’t travel for logistical and health reasons.
“There were no flights going in and out domestically until midsummer,” he said from Costa Rica last week. “We didn’t want to travel until we were vaccinated.”
Curtis, who is still yet to be vaccinated, ended up staying the entire year and having to turn a lot of potential customers away.
“If I could have got to Maine, I would have loved to take people out,” he said. “You can social distance on the boat as long as you don’t have a lot of people.”
A lot of people seem to want to get out on the water with many indoor activities and events still off the radar, but the regulations hit hard on bigger tour companies, like Gary Fagan’s Acadian Boat Tours.
“It went as well as it possibly could have under the circumstances. It started out a nightmare,” Fagan said of last season. “Once people started coming, we were able to put on what we were able to put on.”
His biggest tour boat, the Acadian, goes out on scenic nature tours on Frenchman Bay and can hold almost 150 people. But he limited capacity to 50 people.
He, too, expects this summer to be chock-a-block and has been getting calls for tours much earlier than usual, even before his docks are in the water to start tours on Mother’s Day weekend.
“We’re getting phone calls now,” he said. “It’s phone calls we’ve never had before.”