It gets a little crowded in Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park this time of year. More and more often, questions are raised about our island’s carrying capacity. Why can’t we, the popular joke goes, at least put a toll plaza at the head of the island?
The growth of cruise ship visitation in Bar Harbor gets a lot of the blame from folks feeling squeezed, residents and visitors alike. For one thing, large numbers of visitors arrive all together, condensed in time and space. For another, drivers and pedestrians are not used to maneuvering around the large buses that queue up at Harbor Place and surrounding streets to take those passengers on shore excursions. Many of those buses are actually too big to negotiate the curves and fit under the bridges on the park’s motor roads.
In 2016, the Cadillac Summit Road in Acadia was closed due to congestion 12 times, five of which were when cruise ships carrying more than 100 passengers were in port (and weren’t within half an hour of departure).
In 2017, the number of congestion-related closures on Cadillac skyrocketed to 75. There are a number of reasons for this, including better communication and more proactive work by park staff to close the road earlier rather than later when too many vehicles were sharing the space.
Twenty of the closures were when large ships were in port. In September and October, 52 percent of closures were when large ships were in, but from April to August only 13 percent of closures correspond with large ship visits.
So while buses carrying cruise ship passengers account for some of the congestion problems, especially in the fall, those passengers are a small fraction of the large and growing numbers of visitors.
The number of people coming to town any given weekend or week used to be effectively limited by the number of guest rooms available in hotels, motels and bed and breakfasts.
As work by the Island Housing Trust is making clear, property owners now have a strong incentive to turn houses, apartments or bedrooms into vacation rentals. It’s well established that this trend has made it difficult for year-round residents to find a place to rent or buy. But it’s also true that the number of places available for visitors to lay their heads has been growing, and fast.
Since most land-based visitors will come only if they can secure a place to stay or camp, the proliferation of short-term rentals must be one of the strongest drivers of the high visitor numbers we’re seeing.
Mount Desert Island towns will need to be vigilant about discouraging and avoiding congestion – with cruise ships, vacation rentals, and on other fronts. Better data, following implementation of the park’s transportation plan, about where buses are coming from and whether they’re carrying cruise passengers, will help.