A private report indicates that tourism in Maine hasn’t escaped the nation’s economic meltdown unscathed.
But industry experts say the state could continue to attract vacationers who travel closer to home because of the turbulent economy.
Hotel occupancy rates declined 10 percent statewide in September from the same month last year, according to Smith Travel Research, a national agency that tracks data for the Maine Innkeepers Association.
“September was not a good month,” said Greg Dugal, executive director of the association. “The reality of it all hit. The [September] traveling public are older people, people with discretionary income — or at least they used to be.”
The Maine Department of Labor calls tourism the state’s primary industry. According to state figures, the industry generated roughly $10 billion in sales of goods and services, 140,000 jobs, and $3 billion in earnings in 2006.
Many of those jobs are found in the state’s restaurants, which also have felt the economic pinch lately.
Debbie Dyer, who has owned the Pantry Restaurant in Blue Hill for 20 years, saw her September sales slip 10 percent from the same month in 2007. That’s the bad news. But the worse news is that Dyer’s year-to-date sales are down by more than 15 percent.
“Tourists in the summertime — normally that’s my bread and butter,” Dyer said. “There’s still people eating, but they’re not going out as much, and they’re being careful with their money.”
Dyer said that she has a new solitary strategy she’ll employ this winter in her 16-seat breakfast and lunch restaurant.
“I’m going to be the chief cook and bottle washer,” she said. “Usually in past years I’ve had two other workers in the winter months. But I’m going to do it all myself.”
Although Dugal and others said that good weather, vibrant foliage and lower gas prices contributed to what appears to be an October rebound in the numbers of visitors, a decrease in September is still problematic. That month is the third most important to the state’s tourism industry, after August and July.
Kent Leonard, general manager of Bar Harbor’s Bluenose Inn, also said that September was a down month for him.
“When any of those months go down — the bread-and-butter months — it hurts the industry as a whole,” he said Monday. “I think it had to do with the anxiety. 2007 was a good year. There was less anxiety and no impending bank failures on the horizon. In the course of one year, things changed quite a bit.”
The Maine Office of Tourism’s official numbers for September haven’t been released yet, but its most recent statistics show that the taxable restaurant and lodging sales through August were actually up 2.3 percent over the same month in 2007. The state doesn’t track hotel occupancy rates.
Pat Eltman, director of the Maine Office of Tourism, pointed out that 2007 was a banner year for tourism.
“I’d say we’re down a little [in September], but 10 percent sounds a little high,” she said. “A lot of people came to Maine this year.”
Experts say that the economic recession may not be all bad news for the state.
“We’re within a day’s drive of nearly 20 million people,” said Chris Fogg, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce. “During a slow economy, we’ve seen in the past that people tend to stay close to their home. That makes Maine certainly an attractive destination, and that may be the silver lining for us.”
This may help explain the positive early indicators in the state’s ski areas. Greg Sweetser, the executive director of Ski Maine Association, reported strong early season pass sales and hotel reservations at the larger resort areas.
“People have become very aware of the cost of travel and the cost of energy,” Sweetser said. “That probably is going to benefit the state of Maine, with such a huge skier population in the Northeast.”
Some areas bucked the September downward tourist trend. Bruce Carlson, director of the Southwest Harbor-Tremont Chamber of Commerce, said that he has been pleasantly surprised.
“July picked up extremely well, August was marvelous … and September was very, very good,” he said.
This might be because the Quietside of Mount Desert Island also has promoted itself as the family — and budget — side, with lower costs than are found in some other places on the island.
“When people are looking for things to do and restaurants to go to, they’re looking towards economizing,” Carlson said.