Sun up, but park visit numbers down

By Rich Hewitt, BDN Staff
Posted Aug. 09, 2009, at 9:19 p.m.

The recent dry, sunny weather has sent people outdoors, and that has been a boon for Maine’s state parks and historic sites, which have seen a significant uptick in attendance on those days the sun shines, officials say.

On Saturday, under blue skies, Camden Hills State Park logged a record day and Fort Knox State Historic Site reported a very busy day, which included a special event at the fort.

Saturday and Sunday were definitely “beach weather” at Roque Bluffs State Park near Machias, and “people are coming out of the woodwork,” said the park’s manager, Rich Donaher.

“Being on the ocean, we always draw people,” Donaher said Sunday. “Public usage has been down this year, but it hasn’t been terrible. But when we get beach weather, our numbers really jump.”

That has been the story this summer, according to Will Harris, director of the Bureau of Parks and Lands, which oversees Maine’s state parks and historic sites. Attendance numbers are down statewide for day use and for camping use, Harris said last week.

Campers generally make their plans months ahead of time, so the weather generally affects day use more. And when the sun shines, people are flocking to the parks. If the weather holds through August, Harris said, the parks could make up some of the attendance numbers they lost in June and July.

Through July, day use attendance has been 973,777 people, according to Harris. That’s down from 1,100,335 last year at this time, or about 11.5 percent. Camping use also is down. There have been 110,269 campers this year compared to 122,782 last year, a drop of about 10 percent.

Overall, attendance is down just over 11 percent, from 1,226,117 last year at this time to 1,084,046 this year. Although the economy may have had some effect on those numbers, Harris said it appears the rainy weather has been the biggest factor.

“We usually get a big boost in June when school gets out, but, because of the weather, that just didn’t happen,” he said. “There may be some people who, because of the economy, aren’t going to go anywhere, but most of the feedback we’re getting indicates that it’s the weather. People are telling us that they been wanting to come, but this was the first chance they had to get out.”

According to a 2006 study by the Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center at the University of Maine and the state Department of Conservation, visitors to the state parks spend close to $100 million annually related to their visits. Of that, about $2.2 million comes from park fees, which go directly to the state’s General Fund.

The bureau made some changes to the fee structure this year, both for day use and camping, including instituting a reduced day fee for out-of-state seniors, who previously had not been charged a day-use admittance fee. Harris said the bureau has not done its quarterly accounting of revenues, so he did not know what impact those changes might have had.

“If attendance is down 10 percent, that’s going to have an impact on the state’s revenues,” Harris said. “If usage comes back up, the impact will be less.”

There’s good reason to be optimistic, despite the weather.

In recent years, the bureau has focused on keeping some of the larger parks open later in the fall in order to generate more tourist traffic. That has helped to keep visitors coming, and people already are calling asking when the bureau’s popular foliage Web site will be back online.

The Web site, www.mainefoliage.com, which directs visitors to the best places to view the fall foliage, will be back up on Sept. 16, Harris said.

The parks offer a variety of vacation experiences and a good value for Maine residents and visitors alike, Harris said.

“There’s plenty of time to catch up,” he said. “People are interested in our state parks and there is a pent-up demand for people to get out. We have a lot to offer the public.”

http://bangordailynews.com/2009/08/09/news/bangor/sun-up-but-park-visit-numbers-down/ printed on July 11, 2014