Like synthpop and Magic Johnson, Acadia really hit its stride in the 80s

Acadia and the National Park Service both turn 100 this year, providing a time to reflect on what the chronicler of American life Ken Burns dubbed “America’s Best Idea.”

While a hearty “best idea” or “worst idea” debate goes on today in Millinocket and East Millinocket (follow Nick Sambides for coverage), the anniversary gives occasion for exploring visitor trends in Acadia, which hit its peak in the 1980s after establishment as a national monument in 1916.

During the 80s, Acadia was second only to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is free to enter.

The data-driven news site FiveThirtyEight provided some inspiration for that ranked view, using the National Park Service’s visitor use statistics. Their reporting also provides some national context for looking at visitor trends specifically in Acadia.

An interloper seagull swims through Duck Harbor, on Isle au Haut.

An interloper seagull swims through Duck Harbor, on Isle au Haut, in August of 2015. Darren Fishell | BDN

Total visitation to the parks has been on a fairly steady rise, surging in the last two years, which a park service spokesman said is due to the drop in gasoline prices.

While other economic factors are surely at play, Acadia’s visitor totals have taken big leaps in the past two years, in line with those national visits.

The increase in the last two years comes almost entirely from a surge in recreational visitors, who are also spending more time in the park, but still less than in 1979.

Nonrecreational visitors — such as commuters, conference attendees and research scientists — have declined steadily since that year, with a plateau in the 1990s.

Population growth, nationally, is another factor. While total visits hit an all-time high last year, per-capita visits for the national parks has declined, FiveThirtyEight noted.

Since 1979, the park service also keeps more detailed visitor trend statistics, like the types of visitors that come into the park or stay overnight.

Those overnight trends in Acadia resemble national changes, where RV camping has been on a steady decline as backcountry and tent stays have increased.

With no backcountry camping, the trend in Acadia shows only that tent stays almost hit their 1979 levels last year, while RV stays declined slightly.

For this summer, all indications are that tourism will be way up, so watch your highway and Route 1 travel.

Here in Portland, I’ve been searching for some metric to assess whether — as with winter — I forget every year how busy downtown gets in the summer or whether its actually getting busier year-over-year.

And last weekend, I think I found just a sliver of an answer for this year’s forecast, beyond gas prices and the rest: Doug at Marcy’s Diner said Sunday of Memorial Day Weekend came quite close to beating out the diner’s sales record, set during Fourth of July weekend 2015.

So, Fourth of July, look out. It’s going to be a tourism scorcher.

Darren Fishell

About Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.