Big cruise ships came back for the first time in three years, and Acadia National Park had its second-busiest year ever in 2022 — but not everything about Bar Harbor’s tourist season was bigger or better.
For one, local businesses continued to struggle with finding enough workers to handle the surge in demand that Mount Desert Island’s tourist industry has seen since the quiet summer of 2020. A severe lack of workforce housing on MDI is seen as a major obstacle to finding seasonal employees.
Secondly, the idea that more cruise ships are good for the town was resoundingly rejected by local residents last month when they voted in favor of sharp reductions in cruise ship traffic next summer.
But for those who make their living off the millions of tourists who come to Bar Harbor each year, 2022 mostly was a success — even if what constitutes a normal year is subject to debate.
“The travel patterns are back to normal,” Eben Salvatore, director of operations for Bar Harbor Resorts, said Friday about tourists arriving in big numbers for holidays and the late summer months. Bookings at the company’s local hotels were high this year, though its luxury suites did not sell as well as they did in 2021, he said.
“We knew last year was never going to happen again,” Salvatore said.
Visits to Acadia last year surged to more than 4 million — beating the previous record by about half a million people. The 3.9 million visits Acadia got this year was historically high but was better anticipated by local businesses than last year’s surge.
The slow retreat of the COVID pandemic allowed employers to hire more foreign visa workers this year than were available in 2020 and 2021, when fewer were approved, Alf Anderson, director of the local Chamber of Commerce, said. Employers also have adapted to the tough labor market by shifting more of their business functions online, such as ordering food to go, self check-in at lodging businesses, or selling tickets for tours.
“There were definitely more restaurants offering takeout options than we saw before the pandemic changed customer behavior,” Anderson said.
But some businesses were forced to cut their hours or their days of business each week, even at the height of summer, because they could not hire enough help, he said.
“This is unfortunate since seasonal businesses are trying to maximize revenue in a brief window of time and closing even for a few hours can have a major impact,” Anderson said.
Another big difference this year from 2020 and 2021 was the return of large cruise ships — a hot-button issue in Bar Harbor that last month resulted in voter approval of a citizen’s initiative to reduce cruise ship traffic more sharply than what the town had proposed.
How that might play out in 2023 is unknown. The vote requires the reductions to go into effect immediately, but cruise companies schedule their itineraries a year or more in advance, and town officials say they have to figure out multiple logistical questions, such as whether they can legally prevent cruise ship workers from coming ashore as a way ro reduce the number of people who disembark.
Town officials have said they expect lawsuits to be filed to either overturn or delay implementation of the steep cuts.
Even before the vote, the return of large ships this year came with changes in how the town manages the ship traffic, which were intended to reduce the impact the ships have on the community.
Salvatore, whose employer owns the piers where the ships’ tendering vessels bring passengers to and from shore, said the changes produced results that many people wanted.
The ships anchored behind Bar Island, shielding them from view from the downtown waterfront and reducing the amount of noise and light from the ships that could be detected from shore. Plus, the majority of passengers came and went from the pier at the Harborside Hotel, reducing the congestion by Agamont Park and the town pier, a few hundred yards to the east on West Street.
“Moving the anchorage was a huge help,” Salvatore said. “That was enormously successful.”
As the town sorts through its future with cruise ships, some steps are being taken to address its housing shortage.
Last year, voters approved a measure to cap the number of houses that can be used as weekly vacation rentals to help maximize the number of dwellings that are available to year-round residents.
The year before that local voters decided to allow the development of dormitory-style workforce housing to free up houses and apartments in town that were bought and used by seasonal business for their workers.
The pandemic-induced turmoil in the tourism industry the past two years has slowed the subsequent development of such workforce housing, but last month Witham Family Hotels submitted plans to the town to build an 84-bed employee dormitory downtown at the corner of Kebo and Mount Desert streets, according to MaineBiz.
Other employers such as Acadia National Park also are exploring development of workforce housing as a way to address the seasonal labor shortage.
“Until Bar Harbor creates significantly more housing for its seasonal and year-round workforce, the labor shortage will continue to impact businesses,” Anderson said.