Is there a tourism tipping point?

The secret is long out about Acadia National Park. With more than 100 years of history behind it, the park draws roughly 3.5 million people each year to its peaks, carriage roads and shoreline stretches. The sweeping vistas from nearly every mile of the Park Loop Road are a sight to behold. It is no surprise that people come in large numbers to experience it.

But, like many success stories, there can be unintended consequences. For Acadia National Park its success has led to the need to better manage traffic flow and the need for a registration system that has made the locals bristle with its mere mention. We get it. No longer can you take a spur-of-the-moment drive up Cadillac Mountain and for many that is tough to swallow.

The Maine Office of Tourism estimates that in the year 2020 more than 86 percent of people who entered the park drove vehicles. And 75 percent of those who came into the park were from Maine and surrounding New England states such as Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York and Connecticut.

With an influx of 3.5 million people to an island that has a year-round population of roughly 10,000 people, it can feel rather congested. As COVID wanes and people look to satiate their pent-up need to travel, they are choosing places such as Acadia National Park and are staying on Mount Desert Island.

In the spring it was clear that the summer months were going to be busy. By May most campgrounds and hotels were booked and as early as the Memorial Day weekend the streets of Bar Harbor were already chock full and moving around became difficult. It hasn’t let up.

Recent metrics show just how busy it has been — giving some context to the fact that it is nearly impossible to take a left-hand turn anywhere in downtown Bar Harbor.

In June parking meter revenue was up, up, up. At $402,772 it smashed last year’s total of $75,314, as well as the pre-COVID 2019 figure of $283,843. This year there are even fewer meters to collect from given that many downtown businesses took the town up on its offer to create a parklet in front of their business thereby taking those spaces out of service.

In a similar vein Acadia National Park reported record visitation numbers from May (June is not yet available) — up 214 percent from 2020, a year that was sharply curtailed by the pandemic. But it also beat the previous record set in May 2018 by about 30 percent. Or about 75,000 visits.

As the population of Bar Harbor, Acadia National Park and all of Mount Desert Island continue to swell during the summer months more needs to be done to move people around the island and through the park. With service via the Island Explorer buses reduced the last two years it has shown just how valuable are those shuttle rides are around MDI.

When COVID is behind us, the Island Explorer system will need to rebound and grow. The Acadia Gateway Center in Trenton, slated for expansion, must better fulfill its original vision as a transportation hub reducing vehicle traffic onto the island. Prioritizing public transportation will help ease congestion and visitor frustration. Plus, it is a win for the environment if vehicle emissions can be reduced.

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