Silver lining: August is a bright spot after summer of damp tourism dollars

Posted Sept. 04, 2009, at 10:31 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — Rain may have soaked this summer’s tourist season, but it didn’t sink it.

Business owners and tourism industry officials agreed this week that the wet start to summer definitely slowed the influx of visitors and dampened the economic climate.

However, the weather’s change for the better in August and a hoped-for normal fall should make the overall picture for the season a lot less troubling, they said.

“It is no secret that the weather early this season was challenging for tourism in the New England region, not just for us. The weather has always been one of the biggest factors for us because we are a drive-to destination,” Steve Lyons, marketing director of the Maine Office of Tourism, said this week. “We hear reports that it’s gotten better in August. It’s certainly not going to break any records, but we’re optimistic it will be a half-decent season.”

Lyons said 2008 was the wettest summer in 130 years and that even more rain was recorded in 2009. Despite that, many businesses that rely on tourism appear to have done better than expected, he said.

Lyons noted that bookings on the Cat high-speed ferry to Nova Scotia were up this summer as were reservations at campgrounds in the Kennebec Valley region. He said inquiries at tourist centers in the Down East and Acadia regions also reported being above last year’s. He said restaurants, museums, galleries and specialty stores also tend to do well during periods of poor weather.

Dan Fox, owner of Fox Landing restaurant overlooking Penobscot Bay in Belfast, reported a strong summer despite the poor weather. Fox said he anticipated a down season and designed his menu more toward local residents, although he counts on tourists as well because Fox Landing is handy to the many motels along Route 1.

“Our business is up, but we’re gearing more to the locals. We’ve still got the tourists but we’re getting more locals. We want the locals, they’re here all year,” Fox said. “I can’t complain. For the economy and the weather, you combine them, we’re still doing OK and those were the two negatives this year.”

Jaimie Logan, executive director of the Boothbay Harbor Regional Chamber of Commerce, said businesses offering outdoor activities, boat excursions and restaurants with outdoor dining were “definitely” hurt by the wet beginning to summer. She said she would have a better handle on the situation by the end of next month.

“I’ve been in the tourism and chamber business long enough to know you can’t make observations until the season is over, and September and October are very important to the overall season,” Logan said. “For many of our businesses, June and the first part of July were very difficult because of all the rain. We’ve polled the members and it was not down across the board. There were pockets within the business sector that were doing quite well.”

Logan said that cool, wet weather does have its advantages for certain segments of the market. She said tourists from Southern states seem to relish the gloom because weather conditions are often the opposite back home.

“The cool and rain was welcome,” she said. “They loved it. They got the fog and the foghorns.”

The wet weather was a boon to business for Michael Hurley, owner of the Colonial Theatre in Belfast, who said attendance was strong during June and July. Hurley speculated that people were more likely to go to the movies when faced with being confined to a cottage or motel room on a rainy night.

“The movie business was fine,” Hurley said. “Hollywood keeps putting out great movies and people keep going to the movies. From ‘Harry Potter’ to ‘The Hangover,’ it was a great summer. Looking around town, August looked good in Belfast, but July was deadville, but that was because of the weather.”

Another Belfast businessman, Neal Parent of Parent Gallery, said there was a significant drop-off in traffic at the gallery during June but it picked up in July and August. Parent keeps a log of each person entering the gallery, and patrons went from about 500 in July to more than 1,000 last month.

“The last few years have been inconsistent but we were up in July,” Parent said. “I think I see signs of things turning around. The last two summers have been soft, no doubt about it, but people are much more positive than they were last summer.”

One area where traffic was off is the lodging business. Greg Dugal of the Maine Innkeepers Association said lodging is at the “very end of the discretionary dollar trail” and that when bad weather hits, it resounds throughout the industry. People who plan on heading to Maine for a weekend will back off if rain is predicted, he said.

Dugal said the most recent sales tax figures indicated that lodging was off 11.8 percent in June compared to last year. Lodging industry monitor Smith Travel Research Co. reported that bookings were off 14 percent through July. Restaurants, in comparison, were off just 1 percent, he said.

Dugal said things had picked up in August and bookings for September and the October foliage season were also on the upswing. He said the Columbus Day weekend is always one of the year’s busiest in terms of lodging.

Fortunately for innkeepers, a spate of hot, humid weather in the cities to the south prompted people to rush to Maine last month, Dugal said. He added, however, that remnants of Hurricane Bill and Tropical Storm Danny on successive weekends managed to chip away at some of the activity.

“It’s by no means been a catastrophe for the tourism industry, but for the lodging industry it’s been a tough year,” he said. “Weather is the key. Throw in a dose of bad weather with a bad economy and you’re in trouble. The only thing more important for our industry is the weather everywhere else. When it’s humid in Boston and New York in August, people come to Maine in droves.”

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