Despite what has been a rainy summer, the number of tourists visiting Bar Harbor this year again is far outpacing pre-pandemic levels, when any annual tally above 3 million was considered extraordinary.
Now, for the third year in a row, Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park are on pace to come close to or exceed 4 million visits. The sidewalks and parking lots of the scenic coastal village have been jam packed, many if not most tourist businesses have been understaffed and workers and residents alike are feeling frazzled and fed up.
And for many, it is not just a cruise ship problem, even though the volume of cruise ships that visit Bar Harbor every summer has dominated the town’s tourism debate for the past several years.
Matthew Hochman, an elected town councilor, told other Bar Harbor officials this week that he’d like the town to consider adopting a temporary ban on new lodging businesses so that the town can look into what its tourism limits should be.
“I think a discussion of a six-month moratorium on new transient accommodations while we put together a tourism capacity study would be appropriate,” Hochman said. “We hear it every day that we are over capacity, but yet we still keep having more and more [hotel] rooms built.”
He also said state transportation officials should conduct a study of the volume of vehicles that travel on and off Mount Desert Island, which includes not only tourists and tourism industry workers but also Jackson Laboratory employees.
“Taking two or three hours to get off the island at the end of the day, every day, is getting to be a very common complaint,” he said.
Fellow Councilor Joe Minutolo, who owns a bicycle shop on busy Cottage Street, said something needs to be done to address the amount of local summertime vehicle traffic, not just in Bar Harbor but in the Ellsworth-Mount Desert Island area.
“I personally this year have witnessed more people with a lot of road rage,” Minutolo said. “We do have to act. We won’t solve this as a Bar Harbor problem. We need to look at this as a regional problem.”
preparing for the influx
Despite the intensity of the past three summers, Bar Harbor’s tourist congestion is something that has been building over the past 30 years.
Large hotels such as West Street Hotel, the Bar Harbor Grand Hotel and Acadia Inn all have been built since 1995, on properties that previously were not being used for lodging. In the late 1990s, the free Island Explorer bus system was introduced on the island, making it easier for both workers and tourists alike to travel into the downtown village, where parking is at a premium in summer months.
The demographics of the tourism industry workforce also have changed, with much of it now imported through foreign worker visas, allowing the industry to grow beyond levels that were supported solely by local resident workers.
And in the past 15 years, since the creation of online vacation rental services such as Airbnb, the number of houses on the island used as commercial rental properties has soared, limiting housing options for local residents and allowing even more tourists to come. Bar Harbor officials calculated in 2021 that roughly 25 percent of all local dwelling units were not owner-occupied and were being rented out by the week.
One recent Bar Harbor project that has attracted attention is a new 45-room lodging business that still is under construction on Cottage Street, on a site that for decades was occupied by two vacant buildings.
The technical classification of the business as a bed and breakfast allowed the project to be approved directly by the town’s code enforcement officer, rather than being vetted by the local planning board. Critics have pointed to the project as an example of how few restrictions there have been on the ever-expanding local tourism industry.
“That project is the one that stokes these emotions in people’s minds,” said Tom Burton, a former town councilor and an opponent of the development. “To call that thing a bed and breakfast is [misleading].”
Burton said he is skeptical that a temporary development ban on such projects would make a difference in limiting the expansion of the town’s tourist industry. But he said it is completely fair for residents to question how much of the island town should be dedicated to housing tourists.
“It might be a start,” he said of a lodging moratorium. “There’s been no balance whatsoever. We’re a town of 5,000 people, but there’s not much here that feels like a small town anymore.”
Gary “Bo” Jennings, president of the town’s Chamber of Commerce, said that whatever approach the town wants to take to help determine its future should include a broad spectrum of local residents and taxpayers.
He cited the bitter cruise ship debate, which is now being litigated in federal court, as an example of how differences of opinion can turn into divisive issues that pit residents against each other.
cruise ship contention
Town officials were working with the local business community last year to set a cap on the number of cruise ship visits when a competing citizen-led initiative was approved by voters, making those discussions moot, he said. A group of local businesses, with the Chamber’s support, is suing the town over the outcome of that vote.
Jennings declined to comment on the general idea of a moratorium on lodging development, saying that he would need to know more details on what the impact of it would be. But he said that if the town looks into it further, he hopes officials will discuss the idea with local businesses.
“We definitely need more parking,” Jennings said, citing one issue that he said the town should consider. “We’ve got to move away from these corners where it’s ‘you versus me’ and learn how to work together.”
Whether or not the town further considers a temporary lodging development ban, Bar Harbor seems likely to change how it manages the tourism industry.
The town’s cruise ship committee — which was created in 2008, when the town had 97 cruise ship visits — has been put on hiatus while the lawsuit is pending in court, but several members of the elected Town Council want to eliminate the committee altogether.
The committee has encouraged the growth of local cruise ship traffic and is largely why Bar Harbor now gets around 150 ship visits per year, but many residents now say the committee has worn out its welcome. The council will hold a public hearing and then vote on Sept. 19 on whether to formally disband the committee.
Several councilors said the town instead should have a citizen committee that looks not just at the cruise ship industry, which brings around 250,000 passengers to town annually, but one that keeps tabs on the local industry as a whole and the millions of tourists it attracts.
“It does make sense to sort of reset this and put it into a different context and make it work in the right way,” Council Chair Val Peacock said.