Maine’s tourism industry rebounds from pandemic, but challenges remain

Tourists fill a sidewalk at Old Orchard Beach last July. Brianna Soukup/staff photographer

Maine’s tourism industry rebounded from the pandemic slump last year, with huge numbers of summer visitors and $1 billion more in spending than two years ago.

Even with near-record visits and massive spending, Maine’s critical summer tourism economy faces headwinds in the form of lingering labor challenges that could hamper future growth.

More than 15.6 million visitors came to Maine in 2021, a third more than the year before, when the travel pandemic and trade restrictions dampened tourism. Despite the rebound, about a million fewer people came to the state compared to 2019, the pre-pandemic benchmark. The Maine Office of Tourism released the 2021 visitation statistics for the state’s annual tourism conference in Portland on Thursday.

Although fewer visitors were on the ground than in previous years, they came with money to burn. Direct tourism spending was $7.8 billion, more than $1 billion higher than the record set in 2019, according to the tourism board’s visitor survey.

The figures underscore a positive trend towards “slow travel” which could encourage fewer visitors to take their time on vacation and engage deeply with local economies.

“Our goal is to get people to come here and stay longer,” said Steve Lyons, director of the tourist board.

Typical overnight visitors spent nearly six nights in the state last year, according to visitor research. In 2019, the average travel party spent less than four nights in Maine. Getting fewer people to stay longer is a sustainable approach for museums, restaurants, entertainment venues and other local businesses, Lyons said.

“If there are fewer people taking their time doing all these things, they’re spending more money and going to all these kinds of businesses,” he said.

Last year, hotel establishments reported an increase in business as visitors flocked to the state. Hotels and vacation homes booked months in advance for summer weekends, and people stayed longer in the fall than in previous years.

High tourism spending is a product of intense demand, not inflation, said Matt Lewis, CEO of trade group HospitalityMaine. From his initial discussions with members, there is no indication that spending will slow down this year.

“Bookings are at an all-time high and daily rates are skyrocketing,” Lewis said. “I see no reason why we wouldn’t be on track to surpass 2021.”

Despite optimistic projections, a persistent, years-old labor problem could hamper tourism growth. Maine’s summer hotel businesses, clustered along the coast, have long struggled to hire enough local workers and typically rely on foreign labor to fill staffing gaps.

Last year, many restaurants were forced to reduce their hours or only open part of the week, even in the height of summer. In some cases, service suffered as customers waited a long time for a dinner table, a drink at the bar or a lobster roll to take away. Tourist board researchers tracked a slight but noticeable decline in visitor satisfaction in surveys last fall, mostly related to customer service falling short of expectations.

“I honestly think the visits and expenses would have been higher if we had had the manpower to accommodate them,” Maine Tourism Association CEO Tony Cameron said. “We have to put in the workforce and provide the service and experience that visitors expect.”

Governor Janet Mills highlighted seasonal labor issues in her remarks at the conference Thursday. She noted her administration’s investment in housing and childcare to help develop the state’s workforce.

“My administration is focused on the root causes that are contributing to our labor problem,” she said.

Mills also praised industry in the state for making safety and health a priority over the past two years, noting that the efforts have helped convince people not just to visit, but to move in. permanently in the state.

“You’ve all worked hard to portray Maine as a safe destination during the pandemic, and it shows,” Mills said.

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