Tourism has been a bit of a roller coaster over the last few years. The year 2019 saw 37 million visitors come to Maine. In 2020, hit hard by the pandemic, tourist visitation was down about 27 percent. Cruise ship visits ceased. The Canadian border was closed.
The summer of 2021 saw tourism back in force in an overwhelming season that rocked communities all over the state. Tourist spending statewide for the season was about $8 billion, up 64 percent. Visitation was up 29 percent, with some 15.6 million visitors statewide.
Last May, tourism experts were predicting that this summer would rival the 2021 season. One early report cited Maine as the national leader in tourism recovery, with “tourism up 25 percent in the first five months of 2022” over 2019. By July, enthusiasm was cooling. Was it rising inflation and the cost of gasoline? A shortage of workers? Fewer tourists were headed in our direction, but they still seemed to be spending. Or was it more people, spending less? The jury is not in yet.
In the meantime, the massive 2021 season seemed to stimulate introspection about tourism in many Maine communities. Towns inland and farther north are contemplating ways to increase tourism, while residents of coastal communities are beginning to rebel against the current volume. The one thing on which they all seemed to agree? “We don’t want to be Bar Harbor!”
Yet it is Bar Harbor (with Acadia National Park) that is the best-known tourist destination in our state, a focal point for tourism advertising. For all the towns that don’t want to be Bar Harbor, quite a few of them depend on spillover from that community into lodging, restaurants and shops in the surrounding area or visitors en route from the Portland/Boston metropolitan area.
The question now is does Bar Harbor want to be Bar Harbor? Though probably the best known, it is just one of many communities trying to decide when enough is enough, managing summer tourism while struggling to create a stronger year-round economy. The cruise ship debate, a booming market in vacation rentals and the never-ending problem of parking are all on the front-burner in that community.
In Bar Harbor, it’s all about trying to strike a balance between residential and commercial interests. The wheels of government turn slowly, and citizens anxious for change are taking matters into their own hands, putting forward petitions to force town votes on various topics.
The city of Ellsworth, the service center for Hancock County, has its own decisions to make. In earlier days the city grew like topsy, welcoming economic development the way Bar Harbor welcomed tourism — the more the merrier. The result was a small but vibrant “downtown” with appealing shops, around the corner from a much longer commercial stretch that looked like Anywhere, USA.
City leaders and local residents had been thinking about their city’s possibilities for years. A few trails were built, and a waterfront park. But couldn’t more be made of the riverfront? And how might the parking areas that front on High Street be softened into something more visually appealing? (Pacesetter Harmon Tire, we’re looking at you.)
In 2017, work began on the idea of a “Green Ellsworth.” Residents and businesses, nonprofits and public officials joined forces to develop a Green Plan for Ellsworth. The plan addresses water, land, food and farming, transportation and energy and solid waste. That, plus an aggressive plan for substantial investment in housing units in land-rich Ellsworth marked the beginning of what will be a transformation of the city.
Other communities in Hancock County with smaller commercial centers — Gouldsboro, Stonington, Blue Hill — are wrestling with their futures, too. Each has decisions to make about how much tourism to encourage, and how to generate other types of economic activity. How will they manage housing costs that prevent local workers from living locally, when anyplace within commuting range is too expensive for a workforce of teachers, health-care workers, waiters and shopkeepers. Even lobstermen are having trouble maintaining a home on the coast.
Many towns in Maine did not imagine how much change was coming. The public rejected zoning, not wanting to be constrained in the use of their private property. Then came a cell tower, a windmill, a campground or some other unwelcome intrusion that was never expected, and it was too late.
Comprehensive planning is a challenging process, but it is the only hope in keeping a community “the way life should be,” whatever that is for a given town. The state role in tourism has been mostly promotional but may need to become more nuanced. State government needs to acknowledge that some areas are looking to increase tourism, while others are feeling overwhelmed. Tourism efforts need to be tailored accordingly.
Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She has served as a Bar Harbor town councilor and as an independent state senator from Hancock County.