The park counted 3,497,187 visitors at the end of November. That’s 560,601 more than came into Acadia for 11 months of 2016 and breaks the park’s record 3.3 million visitations that year.
The 3.3 million figure was significant because 2016 was the year of the National Park Service’s centennial and also Acadia’s 100th birthday, both special dates to fans of America’s national parks. Promotions for the park service and Acadia, both founded in 1916, played a big part in the increase and weren’t repeated.
Park visitors also trigger concerns in Bar Harbor and other Mount Desert Island towns that tourist traffic is degrading the island’s quality of life. Bar Harbor and Acadia are both working on plans that would better manage traffic, while other towns have instituted cruise-ship visitation bans.
Park spokeswoman Christie Anastasia said she wouldn’t be surprised to see 3.5 million visitors for 2017 when December’s numbers come. They are expected by Feb. 1.
“When we had the centennial, that was the first time we had a really big jump in visitation, and there was a big question out there whether it was the centennial or a new norm for us,” Anastasia said Tuesday.
“When a park has a spike in visitation, it doesn’t tend to go back to that spike. Over time it goes a little back down, but it doesn’t fall back down immediately,” she added.
Town Councilor and downtown business owner Matthew Hochman and attorney AJ Greif, a spokesman for the Friends of Frenchman Bay group, called the 2017 numbers a mixed blessing.
Both expressed concern about the impact of the traffic on downtown. Hochman said he was skeptical of the accuracy of the numbers, while Greif said that cruise-ship traffic that comes to MDI to visit Acadia is an issue that needs to be addressed.
“A park dedicated to the wilderness experience diminishes that experience if it is overwhelmed with visitors. I am more concerned about getting more of those visitors out of their cars and onto the trails and carriage roads. I think too many cars on the Loop Load converts a wilderness experience into an urban traffic jam,” said Greif, a Bar Harbor resident.
“Growing up here I can tell you it sure felt busier in the 1980s than most of the 2010s, said Hochman, who owns Trailhead Cafe. “Tourism drives our local economy, so visitation is a good thing. I do not believe that we have an overcrowding problem. I think we have a people management problem.”
To calculate visitation levels, the park estimates the number of times any person enters the park, as opposed to estimating the number of different visitors, so that one particular person could account for one visit or 20 visits, depending on how often that person sets foot in Acadia.
The park is closely interwoven with the Mount Desert Island communities that surround it and has hundreds of frequently-used entry points, making an exact count on the number of visitors virtually impossible.
Acadia does have higher visitation estimates from the 1980s, when it used a different methodology for estimating annual visitation. Officials with the park have said they believe the current methodology is more accurate.
No scientific studies have occurred, but logical reasons for the traffic increase include good weather through much of 2017, goodwill carrying over from 2016, ever-increasing social-media exposure and an improving national economy, Anastasia said.
Among the challenges park workers face is balancing the desire to have as many park visitors as possible with the need to preserve the park and the quality of the visitor experience.
The two goals can collide. An example: Visitors got stopped at the base of the road to Cadillac Mountain during 80 days last year because there were about 450 cars at the top of the mountain, where there are 150 parking spaces, Anastasia said.
The December statistics should be compiled by the end of the month. Park officials hope to have a first draft of their traffic management plan ready for review this spring.
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