Cruise ships are returning to their pre-pandemic levels and could buoy sinking tourism numbers.
In this April 14, 2022, file photo, passengers from the cruise ship Norwegian Pearl walk toward a ramp after tenders brought them to the Harborside Hotel marina in downtown Bar Harbor. Credit: Bar Harbor / BDN

Visits to Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor are down compared with a year ago, but that is not necessarily a bad thing for the area that struggled to keep up with intense tourism last year.

The 2021 tourism season will long be remembered in Bar Harbor for how extremely busy and unusual it was. Acadia got more than 4 millions visits — roughly half a million more than it ever had before — but that was without a single large cruise ship dropping anchor in Frenchman Bay.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Bar Harbor routinely had more than 150 cruise ship visits each year between late April and early November.

This year, the cruise ships are back and at their pre-pandemic levels, but visitation at Acadia so far has been down overall by more than 7 percent, according to the National Park Service. The number of visits was way down for each of the first three months of the year, compared with the same months in 2021 — by 48, 19 and 41, percent respectively.

Winter visitation typically lags far behind the warmer months, when tourists crowd Bar Harbor’s streets between Memorial Day and Indigenous Peoples Day. In April, when warmer temperatures typically attract more people to the park, visitation was off by 4.5 percent from the same month last year. It was up by less than 1 percent in May, and then was down by nearly 9 percent in June. The park’s estimated visits for July, which with August make up the two busiest months for Acadia, are not yet available.

With more than 1 million total visits from January through June of this year, 2022 is still on pace to be the park’s second busiest year in its 107-year history.

One of the factors that made 2021 so stressful for tourism businesses in Bar Harbor was a severe staffing shortage, which has been caused in part by an acute shortage of affordable housing on Mount Desert Island, and by the pandemic-fueled Great Resignation, in which many people have simply opted not to work. This was especially evident during dinner in Bar Harbor, when lines of hungry tourists stretched out the door of many local restaurants as their short-handed staff struggled to keep up.

This year things are looking up at businesses. Alf Anderson, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said Friday that the labor shortage doesn’t seem to be as dire.

“2022 is looking like it will be a return to pre-pandemic visitation in Bar Harbor, or close to it,” Anderson said. “Staffing continues to be a challenge for many seasonal businesses but I’ve heard from many that it is somewhat better than last year.”

Anderson noted that Bar Harbor’s busiest time for cruise ships is in September and October, and that a combination of more cruise ships and sustained visits by tourists arriving by car could boost Acadia’s monthly traffic visits closer to where they were in 2021.

“The outlook for the rest of the summer is strong, with lodging properties reporting advance bookings in line with pre-pandemic numbers and cruise visitation returning as well,” he said.

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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....