The Smart Money: Tourism in Maine

Posted Wednesday, July 24, 2013 in Analysis

The Smart Money: Tourism in Maine

by Gina Hamilton

Last week, we took a look at the fishing industry, one of Maine's largest industries, and the difficulties it is facing with depleted stocks in the Gulf of Maine and the Georges Bank.  This week we'll look at Maine's largest industry ... tourism ... and the challenges it is facing, as well as its opportunites.

Tourism in Maine tends to be seasonal.  There are other seasons ... hunting season, and winter sports season ... but in general, those are highly targeted and don't bring in the vast numbers of visitors that the summer coastal season brings to the state.  The most popular time for tourists to visit Maine is during the summer high season, July and August, and the least popular, ski resorts not withstanding, is in the depths of winter, from January to April.  Maine does a healthy "leaf peeping" season in good years, mostly for a couple of weeks in October, brings in hunters in November, and draws couples searching for a "New England Christmas" in December.  But generally, when speaking of tourist season, the summer high season and the 'shoulder' seasons of June and September are the make-or-break seasons for Maine tourist businesses.

Maine's tourist business is nearly a $5 billion industry.  Of that, the summer season accounted for more than half ($2.5 billion), the fall leaf-peeping and hunting seasons amounted to about $1.6 billion, and winter and spring came in at just under a billion.  These figures are from the Office of Tourism, and they are from 2012.

The Office of Tourism keeps track of consumer spending in lodging, food, gasoline, other transportation costs, retail goods (t-shirts and souvenirs) and recreation (entrance to state and national parks, sailing trips, kayak rentals, lift tickets, mini-golf games, and so on).

So what are the factors that can affect a tourist season, and how do they affect Maine in particular?

1.  The overall economy.  Maine is 'vacationland'.  Holidays in Maine can range from very inexpensive (a housekeeping cabin or a camp) to very pricy indeed (high-end hotels and resorts in popular areas).  Even on the low end, however, if a family is having difficulty due to unemployment, say, the first thing to go is usually the family vacation. 

2.  Gas prices.  Maine is at the top of the chart, literally, and it can take a lot of gas to get here.  And the gas that we buy here is more expensive, for the same reason.  A family from Boston may conclude that it will be cheaper to spend a vacation in Truro than in Bar Harbor because of gas prices alone.  The Maine Turnpike says that gas prices are one major indicator in how busy a tourism season is going to be.  The higher the gas prices, the fewer tourists will come.

3.  Maine's roads.  While we have no choice but to fix our roads in the summer, nothing can be more off-putting to a traveler with a scant week of vacation time than to spend it in traffic on the Turnpike or on Route 1 or Route 3 because of a roads project.  Even more off-putting are poor quality roads that rattle a car bearing a couple of kayaks or bikes or towing a small sailboat to pieces. 

4.  Cost of signature items.  While this hasn't been a significant problem in recent years (quite the opposite, really), overpriced "Maine" goods can discourage tourism.  A shore dinner that costs more in Boothbay Harbor than it does in Boston can make tourists think twice about Maine next year.

5.  Decline of summer camping.  Much of Maine's tourism season, historically, was young.  Very young.  Maine had hundreds of summer youth camps for children ages 9-18, and they would typically come alone or with their parents and stay all summer long, while their parents took a quick holiday and returned to Boston or Providence or New York.  Every community on the coast and many inland towns had summer camps, to which thousands of young people came every year.  The value to the communities was incalculable, from food brought in from local farmers to counselors drawn from area young people to arts taught by local teachers to laundry taken in by local women.  The summer camp business declined in the second half of the 20th century drastically.  However, the change was not all bad.  After World War II, children spent less time in summer camp - from 90 days to merely a week or two - and parents and children began to spend summer vacations together, altering the nature of 'vacationland'. There began to be more family attractions and less adult-oriented restaurants and nightlife in tourist areas.

6.  Cruise ships.  In some locations, notably Portland, but also Bar Harbor, cruise ships bring tourists into port for a few hours.  Most shop locally, but a few entrepreneurs are developing shore excursions ... a trip to Portland Head Light, a local brewery tour, or a whirlwind tour of Acadia National Park ... that not only give a visitor a better idea of what the Maine coast is like, in hopes that they'll visit again, but also spreads the wealth beyond the Old Port and Bar Harbor village. 

7.  Casinos.  Although only 13 percent of Maine tourists polled said that they came to Maine for the "night life" (and there was no breakdown to demonstrate whether that night life was in the Old Port or at one of Maine's casinos), the casinos may have an impact on Maine tourism at some point in the future.  For now, Maine appears to be a "daytime" tourist location.

8.  Transportation. The Downeaster is bringing people further up the coast now, and may affect the tourism dollars spent in communities like Freeport and Brunswick, as well as Portland and Old Orchard Beach.  The future may include entrepreneurs appearing to take visitors from the train on "shore excursions" not unlike the cruise ship entrepreneurs.  Air travel is becoming cheaper and more convenient, too, at the Portland Jetport, where Southwest now flies.  And smaller planes can land directly at Brunswick.

Tourism is still a healthy industry, despite the increase in the meals and lodging tax (still far below most other tourism areas).  However, Maine should give a great deal of thought to how tourism is supported.  It is Maine's largest industry, larger than potato farming, larger than fishing, larger than shipbuilding.  Roadways, especially in tourist areas, should be maintained as early as possible in the year so that the roads are in good shape by June.  Support for ancillary businesses to the cruise ships and transportation network can lead to new entrepreneurship in communities badly in need of jobs, and bring tourist dollars away from the concentrated regions near the Old Port and Bar Harbor.

Tourism will always be seasonal, and Maine's done a good job of extending the summer season into the fall, as well as creating a niche season for winter sports lovers.  By capitalizing on Maine's strengths -- its family-oriented attractions, its quaint towns and villages, and its natural beauty -- visitors will continue to flock to the state.  It is a bright spot in an otherwise difficult economy.

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