ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, Maine — No one disputes the fact that the 16-day federal government shutdown last fall, and the resulting closure of national parks nationwide, took a big bite out of revenues for tourism-related businesses that serve park visitors.
But exactly how much tourist spending declined in the communities that surround Acadia National Park is a matter of interpretation.
On Monday, the national park service released a report that indicated Acadia had 192,600 fewer visitors from Oct. 1 through Oct. 16 last year as a result of the shutdown, which it claimed reduced visitor spending in surrounding communities by $16 million. The park service used previously recorded visitor spending data and compared Acadia visitation levels from October 2012 to October 2013 to reach the $16 million estimate.
By its own admission, however, the park service indicated in the report that it does not know whether park visitors may have modified their spending behavior during the shutdown, rather than just not have shown up.
“It is possible that part of the decline in October 2013 visitor spending was not ‘lost’ to gateway communities but was simply shifted in time or to non-NPS sites,” park service officials wrote in the report.
What the report doesn’t say, but what most local park service and municipal officials readily acknowledge, is that many tourists came anyway to Maine and Bar Harbor, the primary gateway community to Acadia, even if the numbers were down.
Len Bobinchock, deputy superintendent of Acadia, declined on Tuesday to comment specifically on the park service report, but he did say the lack of people inside the park did not mirror the number of people who came to see other parts of Mount Desert Island.
“It was a beautiful October, and there were a lot of people around” the Bar Harbor area, Bobinchock said.
One reason tourists kept coming to MDI was because of the fall cruise ship season. Of the 25 cruise ship visits that were scheduled for Bar Harbor from Oct. 1 through Oct. 16, not a single one was canceled. Those 25 visits are estimated to have brought more than 60,000 cruise ship passengers into Bar Harbor while the national park technically was closed.
Cruise ship industry studies have estimated that each passenger on average spends roughly $100 in each port they visit. If that is the case, it would mean that cruise ship passengers, many of whom would have gone into Acadia, still spent more than $6 million in Bar Harbor during the 16 days that the park was closed — a figure not mentioned in the park service’s estimate.
And by some accounts, the closure of the park just meant that people chose other sites in Maine to visit. The campground at Camden Hills State Park had more campers for that time of year than it usually does, which a state park official attributed to Acadia being shut down.
Officials with Acadia and with Acadia Corp., the park’s concessioner, have said that the closure is believed to have prevented $1 million in spending inside the park on user fees and retail sales at concessions sites such as the gift shop at the top of Cadillac Mountain and at the Jordan Pond House restaurant. Bobinchock said Tuesday that the loss in fees that the park otherwise would have collected is estimated to have been $262,000.
According to figures compiled by Maine State Revenue Services, sales revenues in Bar Harbor declined by nearly $1 million for all of October 2013 from the same month in 2012.
Local business officials put on a brave face during the shutdown last fall, with several saying the last-minute closure of the park did not have as severe an impact on the local tourism industry as they thought it could have. Local hotels lost significant business during the shutdown, but other types of tourist businesses were said to have held steady because visitors that still came spent more time in shops and restaurants than they would have if the park had been open, officials said.
Whatever degree of impact the closure had, the national park still is seen as a hugely significant driver in Maine’s seasonal tourist economy, especially for the towns that surround it. This was apparent not only during the shutdown last fall, but also during sequestration last spring, when budget cuts resulted in delayed openings of the park’s seasonal facilities.
Chris Fogg, executive director of the local Chamber of Commerce, could not be reached Tuesday but has said that MDI’s traditional level of tourist traffic would not be sustainable without Acadia there as a magnet for visitors to the region.