BAR HARBOR, Maine — It’s still early in Maine’s annual tourist season, but based on this town’s signature Fourth of July celebrations, 2022 could turn out to resemble a normal pre-pandemic summer.
Two years ago, when much about COVID-19 was still unknown, Bar Harbor’s summer season was a shadow of its usual self, with monthly visits to Acadia National Park down by as much as 50 percent from the prior year.
Then, in October 2020, the number of visitors to Acadia and Mount Desert Island increased and didn’t let up. That winter was the busiest ever in Acadia and then, when the spring of 2021 rolled around, visitors poured in, setting records for the national park and keeping tourism businesses in a months-long blur of trying to keep up.
On Monday, under a bright-blue sky, streets in the downtown village were lined with spectators for the town’s famous Fourth of July parade, with almost no cloth or paper face masks to be seen. It was a distinct difference from 2020, when the town canceled its Fourth of July parade and fireworks because of the pandemic, and from last year, when wet weather kept a damper on the day and caused the town to postpone its fireworks show until July 5.
For Jessica and Mark Favor of Glenburn, Monday’s festivities felt like a normal Bar Harbor Fourth of July. They showed up at 9 a.m., about an hour before the parade started, and parked at a local bank, which was closed for the holiday. They walked down Main Street and staked out a spot overlooking the harbor in Agamont Park, where they unfolded their lawn chairs and spread out a blanket in the sun before catching the parade.
They had claimed their fireworks viewing spot about a full 12 hours before the pyrotechnics were due to begin. Before noon, much of the lawn surrounding them also had been claimed by people who set up lawn chairs, blankets and shade tents in anticipation of the evening show, which was due to begin after 9 p.m.
Jessica Favor, a retired veterinarian, said she’s been coming to the town’s parade and fireworks since before her son was born. He’s 27 now. She and her husband Mark have sat in the same place for the fireworks every year since they got married 13 years ago, she said.
“Sometimes you recognize the chairs of the blankets” that other people set up from the prior year, she said.
She said they brought a small cooler with food and a small backpack in case they want to go for a walk on some of the area’s trails, many of which connect into Acadia. She said Agamont Park starts to get truly crowded after dinner time, which is why they put their blanket in front of their chairs, so they have room for their feet.
“Around 7 or 8 p.m. it will be standing room only,” she said. But they still get a good view of the fireworks, which are way up above everyone’s heads.
“You’re not going to have an obstructed view because it’s up there,” she said, pointing up to the blue sky.
Despite the normalcy of the Favors’ Fourth routine — and the familiar crowds for the parade — there are still some aspects about the town’s tourist season that may not return to pre-pandemic conditions soon, if at all.
Bar Harbor’s tourist season typically begins in late May and visits to Acadia in May of this year were slightly higher (by 0.8 percent) than in May 2021, when they were 44 percent higher than the pre-pandemic May of 2019. Visitation could remain historically high through the summer, but so far overall visitation to the park for the first five months of 2022 (June statistics are not yet available) is down from 2021 by roughly 30,000 visits, or 6 percent.
And regardless of how many visitors show up, finding employees remains a significant challenge in a market where housing prices are prohibitively expensive for people who get paid hourly wages. Acadia National Park has had difficulty filling seasonal positions, and some restaurants continue to emphasize the pandemic-inspired takeout service, not because of fears of eating in crowded dining rooms but because of staff shortages.
The Burning Tree, a long time popular restaurant just past the Bar Harbor town line in the neighboring village of Otter Creek, announced in mid-June on its Facebook page that it would not be offering in-person dining this summer and instead would focus on its wine shop.
“Unfortunately the staffing shortage that we are currently facing has proven to be more challenging than we had originally anticipated,” it said.
One thing in Bar Harbor that is the same as it has been is parking. Finding a place to park in the downtown village has been a summertime challenge for decades — since before the town implemented a paid parking system — and it was again on Monday, even for some visitors who had found a spot.
Every July 4, the town prohibits parking after 12 p.m. near Agamont Park, at the far north end of Main Street and the far eastern end of West Street, because of safety and logistical challenges posed by having thousands of pedestrians flood into the park and the streets around it to see the fireworks. On Monday, police were having multiple cars towed — many of them with out-of-state plates — in anticipation of the town’s first fireworks show on the July 4 holiday in three years.
Captain David Kerns of the Bar Harbor Police Department said the 2022 Fourth of July was feeling less congested to him than last year, but it always feels jam-packed when the fireworks begin.
“Once people start filing in, it will be as crowded as it ever has been,” he said.