Acadia National Park got busier as the summer rolled along, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, getting only 10 percent less traffic in August than it did in the same month last year.
It’s another data point showing that a Maine tourist season that got off to a slow start in the spring, when the state was largely shut down to out-of-state visitors, picked up speed as the summer continued.
The estimated number of park visits was down more than 50 percent from 2019 in both May and June, and by more than 34 percent in July as travel restrictions and concerns about exposure to the coronavirus forced many people to stay at home. But fewer travelers stayed away in August, park statistics show.
Acadia National Park is a major draw for tourists to the Mount Desert Island area each summer, in recent years recording more than 3 million visits each year from May through October. While the drop in August was smaller than in earlier months, Acadia’s visits for 2020 so far are off 32 percent from last year.
Not for all National Park Service sites nationwide have seen the uptick Acadia has, Kevin Schneider, Acadia’s superintendent, told the park’s advisory commission on Monday. Acadia is estimated to have had roughly 682,000 visits in August, down from 760,000 a year ago.
“This has been an unusual year,” Schneider said. “We’re not as bad off as other parks across the country.”
Visits to Acadia, and in particular to Mount Desert Island, picked up as July progressed, especially on weekends. This increase coincided with a relaxation in state restrictions for travelers to Maine, as residents from three more states — Connecticut, New York and New Jersey — were allowed to come to Maine without first having to quarantine for 14 days or test negative for the disease as virus numbers improved there.
Agents for weekly rental properties throughout Maine have said they’ve been busier than ever this summer, and that vacationers have often been seeking outdoor experiences that allow them to stay socially distanced during the pandemic.
Labor Day weekend, which always is a busy time at Acadia, actually saw a five percent increase from the holiday weekend last year in the number of private vehicles passing through the Sand Beach entrance station, Schneider said. However, with the Island Explorer and other buses in the park not running this year, the number of visits to the park on the holiday weekend was down, he said.
“Labor Day weekend was crazy here,” he said. “Lots of illegal parking.”
The monthly declines in visits dates to April, when the number of people in Acadia was down by 18 percent from April 2019.
The number of monthly visits prior to April, however, were up significantly. January, February and March of this year each saw increases of more than 40 percent over the same months last year, though the number of visits for each month is far lower than those in summer and early fall.
Despite the sharp decrease in overall visits since April, Schneider said, there has been an increase in search and rescue responses in the park this summer.
The park superintendent did not have an explanation for why there have been more calls for falls or injuries this summer, but said that the variety of visitors Acadia is getting may have been affected by the pandemic. It is possible that a higher percentage of visitors this year are people who want to hike, he said, and that other types of visitors more often are staying home.
Much of the park stayed closed during the spring and into June because of the pandemic, Schneider said, but Acadia has adjusted its operations as visits have increased. The park’s campgrounds have not opened this year, but the park is cleaning bathrooms more frequently and has moved some of its services outside, such as providing information to visitors at tables set up in parking lots instead of inside buildings, he said.
The park plans to continue using its new COVID-19 protocols through the fall and will be prepared to do so again next year, Schneider said.
“I have no idea what the next six weeks will hold,” Schneider said, adding that tourists seem to be coming to Maine on shorter notice this year, instead of as a result of planning weeks or months ahead. “Visitation is likely to rebound. I am bullish on our future.”