BAR HARBOR, Maine — Sunny skies, warm weather and somewhat lower gas prices helped lure visitors to parks and coastal communities throughout Maine over the extended Memorial Day weekend, kicking off what tourism officials said looks to be a promising season.
Business and traffic in downtown Bar Harbor was brisk while roads, parking lots and campgrounds in adjacent Acadia National Park were packed for most of the weekend.
“The visitation was very high Saturday and Sunday. A lot of people were in the park and all of the parking lots were full,” Richard Rechholtz, supervisory park ranger at Acadia, said late Monday afternoon. “A lot of bikers, a lot of hikers, the trails were full and everything went well.”
With a direct and indirect economic impact estimated at $7.7 billion, tourism is Maine’s largest industry. And Memorial Day is generally regarded as the start of the tourism season, especially in areas that offer fewer wintertime activities for snow-lovers.
This year’s mild winter put a damper on tourism in some areas. But the relatively warm spring and summer seem to have provided an early boost to many tourism-related businesses, according to Carolann Ouellette, director of the Maine Office of Tourism.
Some Chambers of Commerce have already reported a spike in business as high as 20 percent over this time last year, Ouellette said.
“Generally, we are hearing people say they have had a great kick-start to the season because of the warm weather,” Ouellette said late last week. Anecdotally, Ouellette said businesses were telling her office that they expected Memorial Day weekend to be on par or ahead of recent years.
More so than other periods, Memorial Day weekend tends to hinge on the weather because many of the tourists tend to come from Maine or nearby states.
Joe Minutolo, co-owner of Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop, certainly had no complaints about the recent sunshine and relatively dry weather. He said he has been fairly busy this spring renting bikes and business this past weekend was strong.
“With us, we are so weather dependent,” Minutolo said. “If we have rain, then we take a hit. But we had good weather” this weekend.
Maine’s state parks also appear to be seeing more visitors so far this year, likely attributable in part to the unusually mild winter and warmer spring. Day-use at state parks from January through April was up 20 percent over last year, while camping was up 36 percent, according to figures supplied by the Maine Department of Conservation.
“The warm weather seems to have sparked more interest,” said Jeanne Curran, spokeswoman for the department.
Chris Fogg, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said this appears to be one of the strongest seasons in several years. Typically, the region sees more “stay-cation” visitors from Maine in the spring before tourists from far and wide begin descending on Mount Desert Island in the summer and fall.
The Hashey family of Newburgh, just west of Bangor, were among the many Mainers who took advantage of the holiday to make a day trip to MDI.
“We’re just here for the day to have a picnic lunch and to go to Acadia,” said Sean Hashey, who was relaxing on the grass overlooking the Bar Harbor waterfront with his wife, Tiffany, and children Tyler, Madison, Olivia and Nick. “It’s a tradition for us.”
Of course, traffic jams are a less popular summer tradition in Maine, and Memorial Day weekend may have offered a glimpse of the season to come. On Monday, the Maine Department of Transportation reported heavy southbound traffic was causing delays between Wells and Kittery as well as stop-and-go conditions to the New Hampshire line.