The Smart Money: The value of summer visitors

Posted Sunday, July 13, 2014 in Analysis

The Smart Money: The value of summer visitors

by Gina Hamilton

It's that time again. We avoid Highway One through Wiscasset like the plague. We steer clear of some of our favorite watering spots. We wait until fall to drive up to Acadia. 

It's summer in Maine, and that means we have houseguests. A lot of them. 

Tourism is Maine's number one industry, and it affects our neck of the woods more than it does other places. But what is the value of our annual tourist season?

Annually, in a typical year, Maine's tourism industry is worth about $5 billion industry. Of that, summer tourism accounts for about half. In 2013, however, events in Washington overshadowed tourism, and high gas prices in Maine compared to the rest of the country also affected us. The shutdown in October right at peak leaf time changed travel plans to Acadia National Park. Winter travel was stymied because of repeated storms in the early part of the year. 

Even so, Maine experienced a slight increase in leisure travel, except in the fall, when travel to Maine (and likely to many other places) was off by 4.4 percent because of the government shutdown.

Net tourist spending in Maine rose from $4,914,488,943 to $5,233,137,187, with $3,265,972,538 in the summer months. That's about 63 percent of the total spending by tourists in Maine for the whole year, probably because of the loss of the fall season in many locations owing to the government shutdown. 

The highest increase in spending came in lodging costs, which rose over 13 percent comparing year to year prices in 2012 and 2013. 

The meals and lodging tax, which went up one percent in October, could have been a tiny piece of the rise, but certainly wasn't responsible for the majority of the spending. Some of it came from the increased number of tourists there to spend money; some came no doubt from rising prices among innkeepers to keep pace with costs. 

Nor did the increased meals and lodging tax seem to be keeping tourists out of Maine. It was a legitimate fear, but was apparently unfounded.

Tourists spent more on restaurant meals, more on things like mini-golf games, park admissions, entertainment, and boat rides, more on transportation to get to Maine — mostly owing to an increase in air fares — and more on retail sales. Despite the higher price of gasoline in Maine compared to elsewhere, and despite the increase in the number of tourists generally, the amount spent on gasoline was about level with last year.

What does that say about our largest industry? Luckily for us, Maine tourists are pretty determined to get here and aren't deterred by price increases that Mainers think are outrageous. 

Luckily, they aren't expecting DisneyLand when they get here. They're expecting an outdoorsy experience, on the water or at the beach or in the woods, and they know they're going to be roughing it a bit.

But it also suggests that we need to do more to keep them happy.

That a single shutdown of a single national park could cause state tourism to sink by more than 4 percent during one of the most important bridge tourism seasons in the country means that we're not doing the best job we can do to provide alternative options. 

We need to expand small providers, even in the largest tourist markets. Can't go to Acadia National Park? Never mind, there are dozens of state parks in the region that are still open for business and ready to welcome visitors. 

We would have lost some tourism anyway, but it wouldn't have been the catastrophe it was for the local Bar Harbor region if we had prepared visitors for it and offered alternatives. After all, we not only knew it was coming, we had a whole new potential class of tourists who were on enforced holiday that could have been tapped.

That's what "open for business" should mean.

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