Rain washes away New England tourism dollars

Posted July 10, 2009, at 6:37 p.m.

OLD ORCHARD BEACH, Maine — Relentless rain and cool weather since early June have sent visitors scrambling home and washed away millions of tourism dollars across the Northeast. But the first 80-degree temperatures this month gave a glimmer of hope Friday that summer can be salvaged.

June was the wettest on record in Atlantic City, N.J., and the second-wettest in New York City. In Portland, rain fell on 21 of the final 24 days of the month. July hasn’t been much better. Rain continued and it was chilly, failing to hit 60 degrees three days in Portland.

In Old Orchard Beach, after the sun peeked out on the Fourth of July weekend, the rain returned with a vengeance, closing the historic pier and amusement rides along with a nearby water park and theme park. Even when the sun shone, a chilly breeze left beach-goers with goose bumps.

“That wind is cold. I can’t believe there are people on the beach,” Melinda Ross of Knoxville, Tenn., said as the temperature nudged 70 degrees Thursday.

Tim and Colleen Troville of Grand Isle, Vt., tried to make the best of it as the rain poured. They went to an indoor go-cart track. They hit the outlet mall in Kittery. They decamped to sports megastore Cabela’s, where Colleen Troville bought herself a raincoat.

“A week off is like, ‘Hey, let’s have some fun.’ And it rains,” she lamented Thursday as her son and daughter rode a couple of amusement rides before packing up.

Businesses that cater to tourists already anticipated a slow season because of the recession. Then they got a double whammy with the raw weather.

In this beachside town, the amusement rides were operating Thursday, but there were no lines. Parking was plentiful, as were vacancy signs outside motels.

The tourism season is young, so there are few statistics indicating how it’s going. In Maine, those that are available point to a rough start. In June, traffic was down 3 percent on the Maine Turnpike, and day use at state parks was down by nearly a third.

There’s no sugarcoating the bitter pill in a state where “Vacationland” is on the license plates and tourism is the biggest industry, pumping $10 billion into the economy.

Vaughn Stinson, chief executive officer of the Maine Tourism Association, put the damage at millions of dollars in Maine alone. “When you have just day after day after day of that, it just really dampens — no pun intended — everyone’s enthusiasm,” Stinson said.

It’s certainly bad for businesses that had to close. Story Land in Conway, N.H., and Funtown Splashtown USA in Saco are among those that closed briefly.

Under sunny skies, Friday marked only the seventh day in two weeks that Aquabaggon, a water park in Saco, was able to open this summer.

“That’s depressing,” said Lynn Hurst, general manager. “This park has been open for 30 years, and we’ve never had a start like this before.”

In addition to being rainy, the summer could rank among the coolest in the Northeast, according to the Northeast Regional Climate Center at Cornell University.

Hope springs eternal, however, especially when it hits 80. The biggest tourism months are July and August, so there’s still time.

Business was down 10 to 15 percent in June at Story Land, but there’s a lot of summer left.

“It’s like Paul Harvey used to say. See me after Labor Day, and I’ll tell you the ‘rest of the story,”’ said Jack Mahaney, marketing coordinator.

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