The National Park Service recently released visitation numbers for Acadia National Park, as it does every month. The park had record numbers of visitors in 2015, 2016 and 2017.
These numbers carry enormous political weight.
Officials in Bar Harbor often say the town and region are fortunate to have “an economic engine that’s revved right now.” Our strong economy makes us the envy of much of the rest of the state. Acadia is the seventh most-visited of the nation’s 59 national parks.
Last year, for the first time, riders on Island Explorer buses were included in the total. Even so, the total visitation number more closely reflects visits, not visitors, as many visitors are counted several times.
Some residents, on seeing the reports, worry that someone somewhere is actively trying to push these numbers ever higher. Talk of setting records can sound like there’s a goal to reach and exceed. Reporting the fact of increasing numbers can come off as boosterism. It’s time to tap the brakes, they argue, before congestion brings lasting damage to our natural resources or to our reputation or both.
Managing the crowds is a shared responsibility among the park, the towns and the businesses that serve them–including everyone who rents property to visitors.
Those with a stake in this issue seem to be of two minds: We fret about congestion and we also spend money to promote Bar Harbor, Acadia and the region at travel shows, in “best of” lists and in national media.
It may be clear on the ground that residents and businesses have different priorities, or different kinds of businesses may be working against each other on some issues. The outside world is hearing both the fretting and the boosting, and it’s got to be a confusing mixed message.
Increased demand for visits here can drive up prices for food, lodging and other businesses, but only if there’s a limited supply. The supply of visitor lodging continues to expand through AirBnb and other short-term rentals. Acadia will likely soon impose its own supply restrictions in the form of a new reservation system. How that will affect congestion outside the park boundary is anyone’s guess.
Stakeholders must continue to put their heads together and decide how to regulate what we want less of and promote what we want more of. Then we can send those messages loud and clear.