Fishing Under The Dock

Posted Aug. 02, 2008, at 12 a.m.

Calling the state “Vacationland” isn’ t enough to sustain Maine’ s largest industry. The Maine Office of Tourism tries to react to ever-changing trends in the business, and like a fisherman, must decide where to cast its net to bring in the biggest catch. The latest effort to respond to those trends is a bit like fishing under the dock.

The tourism office is following the lead of Massachusetts, New York and some of the other states Maine competes with for tourism by encouraging residents to vacation in their home state, said Patricia Eltman, director of the Maine Office of Tourism. The term “stay-cation,” coined to describe the experience, is becoming common parlance in the business, Ms. Eltman said.

The state devoted a small portion of its promotion budget for the “stay in Maine” campaign it launched this summer. Tourism businesses raised money in 2004 to pay for a similar campaign, but this was the first time state money was used in the effort. “We thought this year was a good year to do it,” said Steve Lyons, a specialist in the tourism office.

The fear was that record high gas prices might mean residents of Maine’ s core tourism market in southern New England and the mid-Atlantic region would not drive here. So far, reports Ms. Eltman, it’ s not clear whether gas prices are slowing visitation. What has emerged as a new factor in dampening tourism is the ability of consumers to check, via the Internet, weather forecasts for Maine from their homes, she said. So if a rainy weekend is expected in Maine, many would-be visitors simply change their plans.

The “vacation in Maine” campaign includes glossy brochures inserted into Maine newspapers extolling the diversity of coast, lakes, woods and small towns, and encouraging Mainers to visit someplace in the state they’ ve never been. “Imagine if you lived in an incredible vacation destination all year round,” the brochure reads. “Oh wait, you do.”

The campaign also includes a week of radio ads featuring Gov. Baldacci, and six weeks of TV commercials.

“This is a test,” Ms. Eltman said, and her staff will eagerly watch to see how it works. Though it doesn’ t bring new money into the state, tourism officials believe it keeps money in Maine, instead of seeing it “leak” into other markets like Cape Cod or the White Mountains of New Hampshire.

In 2006, according to statistics provided to the state, there were 10.1 million overnight stays in Maine 2 million were Maine residents spending the night in a hotel, motel, inn, cottage or campground. Overnight stays by both Maine and out-of-state visitors account for $6.7 billion in annual spending.

Though new, out-of-state money is preferable to recycling Maine money through the local economy, the Maine Office of Tourism’ s preemptive strike to keep Mainers staying and playing here likely will prove to be a smart move. And even if it proves otherwise, the office is to be commended for trying to anticipate new trends and respond quickly.

Tourism, though Maine’ s largest business sector, can be a fleeting food source for the economy. This year, a summer visit to Maine may seem like the perfect vacation. But next year, another place beckons. The state must remain nimble and willing to try new methods.

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