Historically, the mission of Maine’s tourism agency has been to market the state as an attractive destination and drive more people to visit and spend their money here.
Partly as a result of the agency’s efforts, Maine boasted a booming tourism industry that posted record-breaking tourism spending and visitation for years before the pandemic interrupted that success in 2020.
But all that attention and a quick rebound to pre-pandemic tourism last year has led to worries about too much tourism and crowding. For its newest strategic plan, the Maine Office of Tourism is shifting its focus from attracting visitors to guiding how their presence affects the state’s communities, economy and natural resources.
“Things are changing now,” Steve Lyons, director of the tourism office, said in an interview. “Travelers are traveling differently, destinations have to think about how they manage tourism around the state as opposed to just marketing.”
A new $284,000 contract with Coraggio Group, a consultant from Portland, Oregon, intends to craft a new destination management plan for the state. That plan will outline how Maine can get a handle on the tourism industry and its impact.
Researchers will examine ways the state can limit crowding at its most visited sites and address places that don’t need promotion because of current traffic. It also will discuss ways tourism in Maine – where summer travel dominates – can extend into all four seasons and all areas of the state, diversify its tourism market, and adapt to social and environmental impacts.
“It is not just about getting volumes of visitors here, it is about getting the right balance of visitation and balancing that with the residents’ quality of life, economic development and tourism,” Lyons said.
In 2021, about 15.6 million tourists came to Maine and spent about $7.8 billion, slightly lower than in 2019, according to Maine Office of Tourism statistics. It was a gigantic rebound from 2020, when travel restrictions kept many out-of-state visitors away.
But some visitors drawn to Maine’s well-advertised rugged beauty took on outdoor activities such as hiking and boating that outmatched their abilities and increased rescue calls to the Maine Wardens Service, Lyons said. In other cases, landowners fed up with trespassing and poor behavior from tourists reported incidents to wardens and posted their land.
“In Maine, the vast majority of outdoor recreation is done on private and not public land,” Lyons said. “I think people don’t understand that.”
Overall, the intent is to make sure that the level of tourism in Maine is sustainable, both from an environmental and social standpoint, he said. Some well-known destinations, such as Portland, Bar Harbor, Ogunquit and Old Orchard Beach, are accustomed to tourists and can handle huge crowds. Emerging, smaller destinations might not want that same level of exposure or attention.
“We want to get tourism to a level in these communities that they are comfortable with,” Lyons said.
To that end, the state will conduct an online survey this March for residents, business owners, visitors, local officials and others to get input. That process will be followed by town halls in each of Maine’s eight tourism regions to gather local opinions.
Previous iterations of the strategic plan also have collected public input, but mostly from members of the tourism industry, Lyons said. This time, it intends to give voices of ordinary residents greater weight.
“I don’t think they have been excluded before, but we have not put much of an emphasis on resident input,” Lyons said. “But you need to have the residents’ point of view if you are going to balance tourism, economic development and quality of life.”
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