Getting Tourists There

Posted April 20, 2010, at 5:40 p.m.

Not everyone on the quiet and picturesque Blue Hill peninsula craves tourist traffic. But there are B&B and restaurant owners in Blue Hill, Deer Isle, Castine and Stonington who would love to see more out-of-state license plates make their way down those winding roads.

The problem, of course, is that those winding roads are about as easy to navigate to a desired location as playing golf in a snowstorm. Routes 15, 172, 175, 176, 177 and 199 crisscross each other and wind around the map like ivy on a brick wall. Since tourism is Maine’s top industry, state tourism planners should consider a cheap — but admittedly politically daunting — fix.

That fix can be replicated on Mount Desert Island, along the Bold Coast in Washington County, on the St. George-Port Clyde peninsula in Knox County, from I-95 to Moosehead Lake and so on.

For many years, the Canadian Maritime Provinces have used simple image signs, sporting a representation of a lupine, sea gull, periwinkle shell or lobster boat on a solid color background to guide tourists through the land. Alison MacDougall, a marketing manager for Prince Edward Island’s Department of Tourism and Culture, says the province began using the signed-driving routes years ago, but has in recent years expanded and refined the strategy. There are five coastal drives. They typically follow the main roads on this pastoral island, but will veer away from numbered highways to take in a vista of the pretty landscape.

But most of all, Ms. MacDougall said, the routes lead tourists to views of the ocean, red cliffs and stunning beaches.

“That’s one of the main reasons people come here,” she said.

Like Maine, PEI is a vacation destination best enjoyed by car. Sure, some people visit a golf resort and stay and play, but even they want to explore. The second most popular selection on tourist surveys is touring, Ms. MacDougall said.

There are political pitfalls of using such signs. If Freddy’s Fried Clams restaurant is bypassed by the periwinkle route, owner Fred Smith is not happy. Ms. MacDougall said such complaints are common, but one remedy is for businesses to use directional signs — similar to those used in Maine, with a color different from the route signs — to guide a visitor to the restaurant and then back to the route. Even those who are bypassed admit the route system is effective in getting tourists to venture out and through a very rural landscape.

“That’s the argument at the end of the day,” she said. “It works.”

Recently, the province has begun issuing passport books to tourists, which they fill in with stamps for a reward as they work their way through the route.

It’s an idea Maine should implement, perhaps on the Blue Hill peninsula as a pilot project. The signs would help tourists — and some of us not-so-locals — enjoy the most scenic ride to Stonington without having to stop and study the map.

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