Canadian tourism officials get ideas in midcoast towns

Posted June 15, 2010, at 8:28 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — When the town of Louisbourg, Nova Scotia, needed a new angle to re-energize its formerly bustling tourism industry, it decided to look to the midcoast Maine communities of Belfast, Camden and Rockland for ideas.

Lloydette MacDonald of the Louisbourg Economic Society joined 13 other tourism professionals and municipal leaders from Nova Scotia last week for a three-day “best practices” mission to the coast of Maine.

The group enjoyed lobster, the views from atop Mount Battie and museum visits, but MacDonald said that she was struck most by the way that Belfast and Rockland have made a major turnaround from their manufacturing heyday with the help of many devoted civic boosters and volunteers. Her small Cape Breton community, home to the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site of Canada, has been reeling from the collapse of the commercial fisheries industry and 10 years’ worth of declining tourist visits.

“We have to bring everyone together,” she said Thursday in Rockland. “There are struggles, and there are going to be struggles. We’re up for the battle — and this gives us hope.”

Janet Dutson, executive director of the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce, said that she was contacted a few months ago by the Tourism Industry Association of Nova Scotia.

The association had commissioned a report to find communities that best demonstrated a transition from an industrial economy to a kind of tourism-enhanced economy, she said.

“I was pretty amazed when we got that e-mail,” she said.

According to Dutson, something that prompted the interest from Canada was Bay Ferries Ltd.’s decision last December to stop running The Cat, the high-speed passenger ferry connecting Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, with Portland and Bar Harbor.

“They’re going to experience their first tourism season without the ferry,” Dutson said. “That’s of great concern to them.”

The recent report, done by the Atlantic Canada Opportunities Agency, examined how selected communities in North America that were “transportation bypassed” and that suffered major company shutdowns had revitalized their tourism industries.

Belfast and Astoria, Ore., scored highest on the list of communities that had “suffered hardships and implemented change to keep their towns alive and grow prosperously,” according to the report’s executive summary.

“In one case, a town went from literally a bloody mess to one of the coolest tourist destinations in the USA,” the report wrote about Belfast.

There, the Canadians learned about the city’s transition from a chicken-processing community and talked to local leaders who told them about efforts to encourage tourism. They went rowing in the harbor with the Come Boating! organization, learned about the Friday night art walks, and did the Museum in the Streets walk with Megan Pinette of the historical society.

“They must be exhausted, because I really had them running,” Dutson said.

In Camden and Rockland, the visitors learned about the Main Street Maine development program and the challenges that face mature tourism destinations, among other activities.

For MacDonald, something she learned that surprised her was the can-do spirit and spontaneity of Belfast residents.

“We’re very big in the Atlantic provinces on planning. We just can’t come up with a fly-by-night idea. We’re focused on five-year plans, 10-year plans,” she said. “I like the way people are working together, but there’s not necessarily a plan — there’s a vision. I see that excitement and energy here.”

She said that she intended to bring ideas about best tourism practices back to Louisbourg, where about 800 people live, and some of what she learned in Belfast should be timely.

Kelly Rose of the Waterfront Development Corp. Ltd., a Halifax-based agency, said that the coastline and communities of midcoast Maine have much in common with Nova Scotia. She also loved the free rowing opportunities offered through Come Boating! and thought that would easily be imported to her area. Rose said she was surprised by other aspects of the Belfast waterfront.

“In Halifax, one thing that’s critical for us is to provide access to the water’s edge,” she said, adding that the province had done a $75 million waterfront development project over the last 30 years that includes a nearly 2-mile-long boardwalk.

In Belfast, such development projects are just getting off the ground.

“In 10 or 20 years, we could come back, and we’d see a completely different waterfront,” Rose said.

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