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

·3 min read

Apr. 14—Maine's tourism industry recovered from pandemic doldrums last year, with huge numbers of summer visitors and a billion dollars more in spending than two years prior.

Even with near-record visitation and massive spending, Maine's critical summer tourism economy faces headwinds in the form of persistent workforce challenges that could hobble future growth.

More than 15.6 million visitors came to Maine in 2021, a third more than made the trip the year before, when pandemic travel and business restrictions curbed 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 reported the 2021 visitation statistics at the state's annual tourism conference in Portland on Thursday.

Even if visitors were thinner on the ground than previous years, they came with cash to burn. Direct tourism spending was $7.8 billion, more than a billion dollars more than the record set in 2019, according to the tourism office's visitor survey research.

The numbers underline a positive "slow travel" trend that might encourage fewer overall visitors to take their time on vacation and deeply engage in local economies.

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"Our goal is to get people to come here and stay longer," said Steve Lyons, director of the tourism office.

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

"If there are fewer people taking their time to do all these things, they're spending more money and patronizing all these sort of businesses," he said.

Last year hospitality establishments reported surging business as visitors flooded back into the state. Hotels and vacation homes booked months in advance for summer weekends, and people stayed longer into autumn than in years before.

Elevated tourism spending is the product of intense demand, not inflation, said Matt Lewis, CEO of the HospitalityMaine trade group. From early discussions he's had with members, there's no indication spending will slow this year.

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"Bookings are at an all-time high, and daily rates are soaring," Lewis said. "I don't see any reason that we wouldn't be on track to exceed 2021."

Despite rosy projections, a persistent, years-old labor challenge could hobble further tourism growth. Maine's summer hospitality businesses, clustered along the coast, have long struggled to hire enough local workers and typically rely on foreign labor to cover staffing gaps.

Last year many restaurants were forced to cut back hours or only open part of the week, even at the peak of the summer. In some cases, service suffered as patrons had lengthy waits for a dinner table, drink at the bar or takeout lobster roll. Office of Tourism researchers tracked a small but noticeable dip in visitor satisfaction during surveys this fall, mostly related to customer service that did not meet expectations.

"I honestly think visitation and spending would have been higher if we had the workforce to accommodate it," said Maine Tourism Association CEO Tony Cameron. "We need to get the workforce in place and provide the service and experience visitors expect."

Gov. Janet Mills highlighted seasonal labor problems in remarks at the conference Thursday. She noted her administration's investment in housing and childcare to help grow the state's workforce.

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"My administration is focusing on the root causes that are contributing to our workforce problem," she said.

Mills also congratulated the state's industry for making safety and health a priority over the last two years, noting the efforts helped convince people to not just visit but move to the state permanently.

"You all worked hard to present Maine as a safe destination during the pandemic and it shows," Mills said.