Tourism has been a bit of a roller coaster in recent years. 2019 saw 37 million visitors come to Maine. In 2020, hard hit by the pandemic, tourist attendance fell by around 27%. Visits from cruise ships have ceased. The Canadian border was closed.
The summer of 2021 saw tourism come back strong in a crushing season that rocked communities across the state. Statewide tourism spending for the season was about $8 billion, up 64%. Attendance was up 29%, with some 15.6 million visitors statewide.
Last May, tourism experts predicted that this summer would rival the 2021 season. An early report cited Maine as the national leader in tourism recovery, with “tourism up 25% in the first five months of 2022” compared to 2019. In July, the enthusiasm was cooling. Was it the rise in inflation and the price of gasoline? A labor shortage? Fewer tourists were heading our way, but they still seemed to be spending. Or was it more people, spending less? The jury is not here yet.
Meanwhile, the massive 2021 season seemed to spur soul-searching about tourism in many Maine communities. Towns in the interior and further north are considering ways to increase tourism, while residents of coastal communities are beginning to rebel against the current volume. The one thing they all seemed to agree on? “We don’t want to be Bar Harbor!”
Yet it is Bar Harbor (along with Acadia National Park) that is our state’s best-known tourist destination, a focal point for tourism advertising. For all the towns that don’t want to be Bar Harbor, many of them depend on the spillover of this community to nearby accommodations, restaurants and shopping or visitors en route from the Portland/Boston metro area .
The question now is whether Bar Harbor wants to be Bar Harbor? Although probably the best known, it’s 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 endless problem of parking are all front and center in this community.
In Bar Harbor, it’s about trying to balance residential and commercial interests. The cogs of government are turning slowly, and citizens eager for change are taking matters into their own hands, presenting petitions to force municipal votes on various topics.
The town of Ellsworth, the service center for Hancock County, has its own decisions to make. Previously, the city grew like crazy, welcoming economic development the same way Bar Harbor welcomed tourism – the more the merrier. The result was a small but vibrant “downtown” with attractive shops, on the corner of a much longer commercial stretch that looked like Anywhere, USA.
City leaders and local residents had been thinking about the possibilities for their city for years. A few trails have been developed and a riverside park. But couldn’t we do more with the riverside? And how could parking areas that overlook the 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 have joined forces to develop a green plan for Ellsworth. The plan covers water, land, food and agriculture, transport and energy and solid waste. That, plus an aggressive plan for substantial investment in housing in land-rich Ellsworth, marked the start of what will be a transformation of the town.
Other Hancock County communities with smaller malls — Gouldsboro, Stonington, Blue Hill — are also struggling with their future. Everyone has decisions to make about how much tourism to encourage and how to generate other types of economic activity. How will they manage the housing costs that prevent local workers from living locally, when any place within travel distance is too expensive for a workforce of teachers, health care workers, waiters and traders? Even lobsters struggle to maintain a home on the coast.
Many towns in Maine did not imagine the magnitude of the changes to come. The public rejected the 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 unwanted intrusion that was not expected, and it was too late.
Comprehensive planning is a difficult process, but it’s the only hope of keeping a community “how life should be”, whatever it is for a given city. The role of the state in tourism has been mainly promotional, but may need to become more nuanced. The state government needs to recognize that some areas are looking to increase tourism, while others feel overwhelmed. Tourism efforts should be adapted accordingly.
Jill Goldthwait worked for 25 years as a registered nurse at Mount Desert Island Hospital. She served as a Bar Harbor alderman and independent senator for Hancock County.