Cars back up on the Park Loop Road in Acadia National Park on Sunday, August 2, 2020, as visitors wait in line to drive through the fee station near Sand Beach. Credit: Bill Trotter

On the heels of its busiest winter ever and an unusually busy Memorial Day weekend, Acadia National Park could be on pace to set a record in 2021 as tourists resume traveling.

Kevin Schneider, the park’s superintendent, told the park’s citizen advisory commission on Monday that Memorial Day weekend, which generally is considered the start of Maine’s summer tourist season, was unusually busy even with the rainy weather.

“Every parking space was full from Hulls Cove to Seal Harbor,” Schneider said. “There was a lot of interest and the park was very busy.”

Official visitation numbers for May are not yet available, but the number of visits to the park in April was double what it was a year ago — 110,000 compared with 55,000. But this April’s figures were 62 percent higher than they were in April 2019, before the pandemic curtailed tourists’ travel plans.

From January through April this year, visitation to Acadia was 74 percent higher than it was for the same four months in 2019, Schneider said.

“There’s a lot of pent-up travel demand,” the superintendent said. “All indications are pointing toward what could be a record-breaking year.”

The park’s busiest year on record was 2018, when it had 3.53 million visits over the entire calendar year. The estimated number of visits declined by 100,000 the following year to 3.43 million and, because of the pandemic, fell sharply to a total of 2.67 million visits in 2020 — a drop of 22 percent.

Despite the lower number of overall visits last year, there often was traffic congestion on weekends, in part because the free Island Explorer bus system did not operate during the pandemic. The Island Explorer bus system operates on Mount Desert Island from late June to mid-October each year to alleviate the number of cars on the roads in and around the park.

The bus system is returning to service this year, which may help mitigate traffic congestion. Because of the ongoing pandemic it will operate at a reduced passenger capacity, though that reduction is not expected to last beyond this year.

To help limit the ongoing chance of exposure to COVID-19, the number of passengers on each bus will be limited to 30 people, instead of 43. As a result, the system will increase the number of buses on its busiest routes that operate close to Bar Harbor and nearby areas of the park.

This means, however, that the bus system will not serve other parts of the island such as Northeast Harbor, Southwest Harbor, and Bass Harbor this year. The system does not have enough buses and drivers to increase its frequency of service on some routes and to continue to provide adequate service on others, according to administrators with Downeast Transportation, which operates the system.

“Our commitment to serving all of our island towns remains strong,” Island Explorer officials said in a statement posted on the service’s website. “We appreciate the patience and understanding we have received from people negatively impacted by this temporary service redesign.”

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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....