Bracing for an unprecedented year and facing a projected decline in visits and revenues from entrance and concession fees, Acadia National Park during the pandemic is opening the Park Loop Road to traffic and offering limited visitor services beginning today, a month and a half later than normal.
Acadia’s season with coronavirus will launch with a closed Hulls Cove Visitor Center, the indefinite postponement of the park’s fare-free shuttle system and a quarantine restriction that stymies most people traveling from other states.
Campgrounds at Acadia National Park during the pandemic are shut down at least through June, new signs will promote social distancing and, starting today, rangers will be wearing masks to provide visitor information in open-air tents near the visitor center – but they won’t be selling park passes, as visitors must purchase them online and print a copy ahead of time.
In the wake of the slowest Memorial Day weekend he’s ever witnessed in the area, Fred Ehrlenbach of Trenton, chairman of the Acadia Advisory Commission, predicted that visits and revenues will be down for the national park, which recorded 3.4 million visits in 2019. He cited the looming recession and COVID-19.
Acadia National Park during the pandemic impacts local economy
Acadia collected about $4.5 million in park entrance fees in a recent year and uses the money to pay for improvements in the park. The park is also crucial to the economy, with visitors spending about $387.7 million in 2018 in the state including on lodging and restaurants.
“I would anticipate a drop of visitation of 1 million to 1.5 million people,” Ehrlenbach said, adding it will be devastating for local businesses that count on tourism.
In mid-April, Acadia announced it was delaying its start and the park was effectively closed in May. Acadia hiking trails remained opened, and the loop road was clear for hikers and bicyclists, but the park did not collect entrance fees during May, which usually draws about 330,000 visits. The park normally requires entrance fees for everyone between May 1 and Oct. 31.
With most tourists blocked by the state’s requirement for a quarantine when traveling to Maine, state residents loved the isolation at Acadia National Park during the pandemic in May.
“It felt like we had the park to ourselves,” said Allie Wityak, after a 15-mile hike from Jordan Pond to Cadillac Mountain on May 30 with friend Lacey Norton, both of Portland. “I never in my life imagined being in a national park and being in total isolation.”
Even with cars and motorcycles back once the park reopens the loop road, June, normally a busy month, is likely to also be unusually quiet.
Seeking to preserve public health and safety, Acadia during the pandemic is aligning its operation with Maine’s phased reopening, and abiding by the 14-day quarantine required in an executive order by Gov. Janet Mills for people entering Maine from out of state.
Bar Harbor eerily quiet during Memorial Day weekend
Stephen Coston, co-owner of The Inn on Mount Desert, said that to his knowledge, the year-round inn was the only one operating over the Memorial Day weekend in Bar Harbor, providing just for people with a state qualifying lodging need. Coston said Memorial Day weekend in the seaport community was “totally dead,” when it is usually booming with tourists.
Coston said the closure of Acadia was a “big deterrent” and the park’s opening will result in more interest – but not a flood of tourists, because many people don’t want to risk travel.
Acadia is different from many national parks because it is so firmly linked to surrounding towns on Mount Desert Island. Bar Harbor is the gateway to the park and a drawing card for tourists, including cruise ship passengers, with about 140,000 a year setting foot in town. Bar Harbor businesses will also be hit this year because of the pandemic’s damage to the cruise industry.
Coston said the inn received a lot of cancellations because of the quarantine requirement and he expects bookings to be pretty much wiped out if it remains in place. Right now, the inn is booked about 40 percent for July and could rise to 75 percent, still far below a typical summer.
“It all comes down to the quarantine. It is discouraging people from visiting Maine.”
Starting June 1, Coston said, the inn will ask guests to comply with Maine’s phase 2 reopening restrictions, meaning they will be asked if they are from Maine, met quarantine requirements or are in the state for another qualifying reason.
Quarantine violations carry criminal penalties
Citing the significant risk for the spread of the virus, Mills signed an executive order on April 3 that requires anyone traveling into Maine to immediately isolate and stay away from public places, except for medical appointments, for 14 days. In the order, Mills included criminal penalties of up to 6 months in jail and $1,000 fine for violations. She wrote that the quarantine is needed to ensure the health care system is capable of serving everyone and to help protect those most vulnerable and at highest risk.
If the quarantine is eased, travel could still be uncertain to Acadia National Park during the pandemic. A survey by the BVK agency found that nearly 6 in 10 US travelers expected restrictions to be lifted this summer, but only 4 in 10 said they expect to be traveling then.
The good news for Acadia is that travelers favor national parks and camping over other destinations such as cities or amusement parks, according to the survey.
Acadia does not know if visits will decline during pandemic
In a recent fiscal year, Acadia collected $4.5 million in recreation fees, primarily from pass entrances, and $450,000 in concession franchise fees, according to Christie Anastasia, public affairs specialist at Acadia. Acadia and other national parks can retain at least 80 percent from entrance and recreation fees and have broad discretion for using them for on-site improvements in 5-year plans approved at a higher level within the Department of the Interior.
In an email, Anastasia said she does not know if fees will be down and she could not estimate how much visitation to Acadia could drop.
“We won’t know if we have a decline or even an increase until we see what happens,” Anastasia wrote. “This is not going to be a typical year.”
The quarantine could remain in effect through July and August, the park’s peak for visitors, but the Mills administration is reviewing the measure and considering changes in the face of criticism from the tourist and hospitality industry.
If the quarantine requirement remains in place, it threatens to kill the plans of many tourists such as Jane Collins and her husband, Hugh Millward, of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.
The couple visit Acadia National Park each year for a week during the summer season, but she says they will skip this year if Maine’s quarantine is still in effect. She said she is concerned about a second wave of the coronavirus.
Collins said she loves Maine and there is nothing comparable to Acadia’s mountains in the Canadian Maritimes. If she went to Acadia this year, she said she could need to quarantine another two weeks on return to Nova Scotia. “The quarantine will be the game breaker,” she said.
Maine tourism officials weighing alternatives to quarantine
During a live virtual event hosted by Maine magazine on YouTube on Thursday, one of six panelists, Steve Lyons, Director of Maine Office of Tourism, said the state recognizes this is a difficult time for businesses and is working with business leaders and others to strike the right balance between public health and economics. When the quarantine is lifted, or even if it is not lifted, the state is looking for ways, including possible advanced testing, that would allow people to travel safely to Maine, he said.
“We are working very hard to get an alternative to the quarantine, which seems to be one of the biggest issues,” Lyons said. “I am optimistic we are going to have something very soon.”
The state prepared an ad campaign to attract visitors from other states, but paused it because of COVID-19, he said. While that marketing plan is ready to go, the state is currently focused on ways to persuade residents to travel around their home state, he said.
Tourism has thrived the past decade in Maine. A total of 37. 1 million tourists visited Maine in 2018, an increase of 44 percent from 25.7 million in 2011.
No on-site purchase of park passes until June 8, only online first week
Acadia, which protects 47,000 acres, is taking steps to ensure the safety of visitors.
In a move to prevent the spread of the virus, people need to purchase park passes online and bring a printed copy if they want to enter Acadia National Park during the pandemic on June 1. The Sand Beach Entrance Station is set to open June 8 for credit card purchases, but other fee stations will remain closed at least through July 1.
The Jordan Pond House Restaurant will open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on June 1 for takeout, with tables inside and outside. The Jordan Pond House Gift Shop and the Cadillac Mountain Eco Store will open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. starting June 1.
The park’s 45 miles of winding carriage roads will be open June 5 for walking, but not for equestrians or bicyclists.
Locals have had Acadia to themselves
While the tourism industry was hurt, the late open of Acadia benefited many locals who enjoyed a peaceful May of hiking the beautiful pink granite shoreline and barren peaks or maybe walking the historic 27-mile Park Loop Road without noisy cars and tourists.
Jason Leighton, who has lived in Trenton for 28 years, said he likes meeting different people and grew up in a tourist town in southern Maine, but it was special to hike in Acadia or paddle in Eagle Lake when the park was closed to traffic in May, not just the winter season.
He only saw four other people during a hike of Parkman Mountain on a beautiful Saturday over the Memorial Day weekend.
“There’s no better way to see nature than without people interfering with it,” said Leighton, owner of Adventure Kayak Tours of Trenton and a Registered Maine Guide.
Still, Leighton said he is concerned if tourists stay away.
“They make our living,” he said. “This is a tourist town.”