How did we get here and where are we headed?
March 13th, 2023
March 13th, 2023
BY ADAM GIBSON
The COVID pandemic impacted national parks in numerous ways. It disrupted conservation research, derailed many park management plans, and altered strategies for public engagement. It also dramatically affected visitation to parks, making trends more volatile.
One lingering pandemic-related question is whether the post-2020 changes in visitation trends will continue and establish a new normal.
2022 Acadia National Park visitation was 3,970,201 visits, which is about a 2 percent decline from 2021 (4,069,098 visits). However, when compared to pre-pandemic visitation
levels (2015-2019), visitation for 2022 was up about 20 percent. This suggests we’re still very much in a post-COVID visitation boom.
How people enter Acadia appears to be different after 2020 as well. In 2019, a record number of people visited the park via the fare-free Island Explorer bus system, and commercial buses. And still about 91 percent of visits were from people in cars.
In 2022, about 95 percent of visits were from people in cars. For context, 99.5 percent of visits came from cars in 2020, when Island Explorer operations were suspended due to the COVID pandemic, and 97 percent of visits via cars in 2021, when a reduced Island Explorer system resumed.
While a difference of 4-6 percent does not sound like a lot, remember we’re talking about very large numbers.
With respect to travel mode, if people visited Acadia the same way in 2022 as they did in 2019, there would have been about 54,000 fewer cars in the park over the course of the year. This could have meant as many as 11,000 fewer cars for the month of August.
Not an insignificant number when considering parking at Sand Beach, Jordan Pond, or Bass Harbor Head Light Station.
So, what does this mean for future visitation trends?
Visitation to Acadia does not appear to be cooling down. In 2022, visitation for May, July, September, and December were all the highest on record for those months using the current visitation calculation method established in 1990.
The numbers present challenges for park staff responsible for ensuring that visitors have a high-quality experience, especially during a period of significant understaffing.
The upshot is that the park transportation plan (approved in 2019) is now more important than ever. But the broadsweeping plan, containing goals the park has had in sight since the formation of the 1992 General Management Plan (the last full-scale general management plan), is no small undertaking. Park and regional staff, the public, and partners such as Friends of Acadia will all need to work in concert if we hope preserve Acadia National Park the way it truly deserves.
Potential Adjustment to the Visitation Calculation Method Coming for AcadiaLearn More
DR. ADAM GIBSON manages the Social Science program at Acadia National Park.