The not-so-off season

For decades, it has been the goal of Mount Desert Island’s business community to increase activity in the “shoulder seasons” on either side of peak summer. The theory was that by eventually starting the season earlier in the spring and extending to later in the fall, something closer to a full-time, year-round economy could be sustained. Observers need look no further than the crowds of people on MDI over the Columbus Day weekend to see that those efforts, at least as far as autumn is concerned, have been wildly successful.

It wasn’t all that long ago that one could sit at the Trenton Bridge on Labor Day and watch the last recreational vehicle heading south with a lobster trap or two strapped to the roof. Shops were boarded up within days, and in downtown Bar Harbor, even some street lights were turned off until spring.

Over time, the end of the summer season stretched to Columbus Day. Events such as the Acadia Night Sky Festival filled in the traditional dip in September. Now, cruise ships flock to Frenchman Bay so passengers can check out the spectacular foliage. Southwest Harbor’s Oktoberfest and the MDI Marathon have helped push the end of the season back a bit further.

In recent years, various events and promotions such as The Pajama Sale and Parade in Bar Harbor, and Midnight Madness and various Village Holidays sales across MDI have invigorated downtowns until Christmas.

This year, over the Columbus Day weekend, crowds on MDI seemed at an all-time high. Even the top of Cadillac Mountain was jammed at sunrise on Saturday and Sunday. That usually happens only in August.

One island resident went so far as to post on a social media site: “If I was Acadia National Park this weekend, I’d file assault charges.”

Figures released by the National Park Service for the end of September show Acadia on track to host more than 2.7 million people this year. Visitation in August was up 4 percent, and in September, 3 percent. Even higher percentage increases in earlier months mean the overall increase for the year may top 6.5 percent.

What these visitor increases demonstrate is that efforts to promote formerly slow months, combined with more nationwide publicity for Acadia, have been successful. But that success brings risks for the park and the quality of life for island communities. It may be time to rethink promotion of fall because it’s “quieter.”

With a tradition of autumn visitation now firmly established, attention might be redirected toward efforts to increase winter visitations, keeping the original goal of a viable year-round economy in mind.

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