Guiding guests to quality visits

By Jack Russell

On the cusp of Memorial Day weekend, let’s reflect on the growing popularity of our park and the risks this could pose to our commons and local economy.

Throughout my three-score-years-and-ten as a Mount Desert Island native son, annual family visitor and year-round citizen again since 2006, I have heard my community divide on the summer tourist invasion.

For decades, many here have made most of their living in 60-hour weeks from Memorial Day through Labor Day selling goods and services to tourists and summer people. The families of some boyhood friends would camp out for three months to make their homes summer rentals. In my day, if you were a teen without a summer job, you lost face. (I tended gardens and then sold high-end groceries to summer folks and comfortable tourists – long hours for low pay, but Vint Daney’s salty stories entertained.)

We all worked hard and learned to deflect the slights of some from away. We had to. Back then, in the 1950s, we still felt the wound of the fire; we grew up in recovery. Our town and island hosted seasonal guests for a summer, a week or a day. Because wise elders had preserved our beautiful place as a commons for all, tourists came.

Distinct views of the summer invasion certainly separated citizen from citizen, but many of us also carried the tension within. We were both proud and protective of Acadia. We loved our park through its seasonal moods. It was natural that others from away would seek this gift. Acadia was, we knew, our welcome to the world, bringing commerce that helped our towns pay bills and teach kids.

At the same time, we resented the summer invasion that crowded us from places we felt were our birthright. We frowned at day tourists whose Acadia experience seemed to be one pass along Ocean Drive, 10 minutes atop Cadillac and a popover. Most MDI folks knew this tension between pride and resentment. It was the natural response of tourist town natives frustrated by the inconvenience and offended by the occasional indignity of surrendering our home to the hoards essential to our economy. We contained the tension and did our jobs. That was then.

Now, in our time, population growth, better transportation, the baby-boomer retiree bulge and local and state promotion may bring an existential challenge: might growing visitation overwhelm our park, degrade the very experience visitors seek and damage our tourist economy based on the graces of Acadia?

The 21st-century math of Acadia visitation seems inexorable. More than 80 million people now live within a one-day drive of MDI. Modest Acadia, at 47,000 acres – a quarter of that in conservation easements – has become America’s favorite place. In 2015, our park absorbed 2,810,000 visits – a 20-year high. It seems reasonable to expect visitation to rise in coming years. The good news is that this brings nearly $250 million a year in tourist spending to our regional economy. The bad: our park, the anchor asset, is stressed.

Stress is already obvious. ANP had to close access to the Cadillac summit several times last summer. Route 233 at the north end of Eagle Lake and the Park Loop Road on Ocean Drive and near the Jordan Pond House can become vexing parking lots on sunny summer days.

Exemplary efforts to cope with car-based crowding have been made. Civic collaboration established the Island Explorer propane-powered bus system, the largest in Maine. Connector trails now link towns and park. The trails and carriage roads of Acadia are in good repair and welcome thousands.

These accomplishments help, but the visitation challenge grows and can now stress our park, her stewards and the quality of many visitors’ experience. Some worry that the Acadia Centennial will spike visitation – a concern the centennial partners respect and will address even as they implement a world-welcoming yearlong celebration during 2016.

The centennial year is an opportunity for serious discussion of how Acadia lovers in the communities surrounding our park can work together to assure the ongoing quality of the Acadia visitor experience even as visitation grows. From solitude-seeking conservationists to tourist-serving business people trying to make a living in six months, all want our seasonal guests to enjoy their time with us. The spirit and connections created by the centennial can help us assure that they will.

Our first obligation is to assess soberly the challenge by understanding the history and possible futures of Acadia visitation. We should then communicate the challenge clearly, soberly and broadly. Both the ANP staff and several Acadia Centennial Partners have developed communications tools that support quality visits in Acadia. The Acadia Centennial website will soon offer a section to help visitors prepare rewarding experiences and make choices that reduce peak-time, key-place crowding in ANP. A rack card available to all already does.

We believe the community-based effort to address visitation stress is an important centennial year story and have earned media that tell it. Check out the June Commemorative Issue of our partner “Down East.” A social media effort to support quality visits in Acadia has hit the airwaves. Enjoy and learn from the major centennial supplement the Islander and American will publish next month.

Important visitor education also can occur face to face during direct service to our guests. Thus centennial partners are working together to give hospitality employees knowledge and suggestions they can pass on to visitors at tables and across registration desks and bars.

Perhaps the most important message to deliver and exemplify as we work together on visitation stress is that the full Acadia experience includes what we offer in the surrounding communities. Many return visitors to Acadia love our towns and have made staying at a favored inn or that never-miss meal an annual family sacrament.

At many times and places in our towns, crowds are a good thing! There’s nothing wrong with two settings per table each night at humming restaurants, rainy-day full houses at the Abbe, Gilley or Auto Museum, and sold-out shows at Reel Pizza and The Criterion. Such social buzz can be a welcome counterpoint to quiet times in Acadia. And scores of Acadia Centennial Partners in our towns offer educational experiences that augment what is learned in the park.

During the centennial year, we will test and model some ways to address the challenge of growing visitation. Fundamental responsibility to manage the challenge of traveling in and to Acadia rests, of course, with the National Park Service and the Acadia National Park staff. We have been and are blessed with ANP leaders who understand and will work with the surrounding communities as we learn together how be America’s favorite place.

The next big step in that duty will be the recommendations made in the report based on a three-year Transportation Plan study conducted by the NPS and ANP. We believe the community spirit of the Acadia Centennial year will help the green and gray to wise decisions.

Jack Russell lives at the north end of Echo Lake.

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