A group of students at College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor meets with a professor at Sand Beach in Acadia National Park on Jan. 26, 2021. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Acadia National Park just had its busiest winter ever, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that caused park visits last year to fall by more than 750,000.

This past winter, from November through March, Acadia had 172,000 visitors, far surpassing its previous wintertime high of nearly 140,000, which it set two winters running in the late 1990s. While 172,000 visits still is fairly low compared to the 2.6 million visits it had for all of 2020, the uptick represents a more than 50 percent increase from the prior winter, when Acadia had 113,000 visits, and an 88 percent increase from the same five-month period in 2018-19, when it had 91,000 visits.

For the relatively few tourism-oriented businesses that stay open in Bar Harbor through the winter, the bump in business has been welcome in an industry that mostly saw dismal numbers last spring and early summer.

The ongoing pandemic likely is responsible, at least in part, for the increase in winter business on Mount Desert Island, though the relatively mild weather also is likely an important factor, park and local business officials said this week. The vast majority of large hotels in Bar Harbor close down from November through April, but smaller inns that stay open all winter say they had more guests than usual, while other businesses said they had more customers who usually are summer residents but decided to stay in Maine through the colder months.

“More people have stayed in or come to Maine to live for the winter,” said Jeff Curtis of Sherman’s bookstores, which has five shops in coastal Maine including in Bar Harbor. “Remote working and schooling has allowed people to live here where the entire state has taken the pandemic seriously and created a safe living environment.”

With limitations still in place on gathering indoors, residents and visitors alike looked for outdoor winter activities to get them out of the house, but they also found time to shop, he said.

“Bar Harbor has been noticeably busier this winter, as have all our stores,” where sales have been “up almost double” over the previous winter, Curtis said.

During the past decade, visitation at Acadia increased from around 2.3 million visits a year to 3.5 million, peaking in 2017. Visits during the colder months make up only a fraction of the park’s annual visits, with between 90 and 95 percent happening between May and October.

“The total each winter is still less than a typical May,” said park spokesperson Jay Elhard. “While the increase this winter is interesting, our summer visitation is still what really drives the numbers.”

While no one expects winter visitation at the park to rival the millions who show up from May through October, there has been a desire among some business owners and officials to boost the number of winter tourists in Bar Harbor.

“Overall, I think winter tourism is a real growth opportunity for Bar Harbor and MDI,” said Alf Anderson, executive director of Bar Harbor’s Chamber of Commerce. “Ideally, we’d love to spread our tourism season more evenly throughout the year, which would encourage more businesses to be open year-round.”

Matt Losquadro, who with his wife Kristi Losquadro owns and operates the Saltair Inn in Bar Harbor, said he likes that Bar Harbor is quieter in the winter, but he prefers it not be too quiet.

“If you’re going to get up in the morning and make breakfast for two people, you might as well make it for 16 people,” he said.

The couple said they have had more business than usual this winter, and that their summer bookings already are 85 percent full — a sign that this summer may be much busier for Maine’s hotels and inns than 2020.

The Saltair Inn has been open year-round for 15 years and in winter tends to get guests from other parts of Maine, Matt Losquadro said. Business is best in winter when conditions are either mild or cold and snowy — not in between, he said.

“I’d like to see Bar Harbor be more of a winter town,” Losquadro said. “I’ve always wished Acadia would plow the additional 17 miles” of the Park Loop Road that it leaves gated and untouched from late November through mid-April, so that more parts of the park are readily accessible, he added.

Rich MacDonald, a naturalist who provides guided tours of the park through his business, the Natural History Center, said he typically does one guided birding tour a week each winter. But he’s averaged more this winter, and once or twice has had more than one tour a day. Many of his customers, he said, have been summer residents who stayed through the winter and wanted to learn more about Acadia during the colder months.

“I did enough tours this winter that for the first time in 13 years, I was able to pay myself a winter salary,” MacDonald said, adding that Bar Harbor has “so much potential” to be a year-round destination.

“I would love to be able to make a year-round income” from guiding, he said.

Though Acadia’s annual number of visits climbed each year from 2014 through 2017, the number of winter visitors during that spell sometimes fell, offset by increases during warmer months.

Annual visitation totals have fallen in each of the three years since 2017, though winter visitation has ticked up two years in a row. There is optimism that this year’s summer tourist season will be more “normal” than 2020’s, but no one knows for sure what the new normal might look like.

Summer and fall cruise ship visits have been a significant part of tourism in Bar Harbor and Portland in recent decades, but emergency federal operating restrictions prevented ships from visiting Maine last summer and will do so again this year. What kind of long-term impact the pandemic will have on the cruise industry is not yet known.

Home sales to people from out of state have been brisk throughout Maine during the pandemic, potentially boosting the population in seasonal communities with high percentages of summer residents.

And climate change also is believed to be a driver of visitation to the park, and for Maine’s tourism industry as a whole. Acadia officials have said warming weather already seems to have extended Maine’s tourist season further into the fall, and that higher numbers of tourists might come to Maine as average temperatures rise in and out of the state.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....