Northern Maine will be on global display in February, when two weeks of World Cup biathlon events will be televised to about 120 million European viewers.
Organizers said Thursday that the competition, set for Feb. 4-13, is expected to attract 35,000 spectators to the region to watch 300 athletes from 30 countries compete in Presque Isle and Fort Kent venues. They estimate a $10 million economic impact to the region, as visitors stay in local hotels, use area services, eat at restaurants and spend money in general.
But the goal is to have an effect beyond the actual event, said Andy Shepard, president and CEO of the Maine Winter Sports Center. In 1999, the center invested more than $30 million in northern Maine’s winter sport infrastructure, supported by The Libra Foundation and working with local communities. The idea, said Shepard, was to create an economic development model for northern Maine based around winter sports tourism.
Showcasing northern Maine to European viewers can highlight commonalities between the two areas and hopefully increase tourism and possibly business investment, he said.
“The culture of northern Europe and the culture of northern Maine are very similar,” said Shepard. “There’s a passionate appreciation for the outdoors year around: hunting, fishing, canoeing, kayaking, mountain biking, skiing.”
Fort Kent hosted its first World Cup biathlon event in 2004, generating $5 million in economic activity in the region. That was a proving ground, said Shepard, where the region showed it could successfully host such an event. But businesses and the region didn’t capitalize on that exposure.
“We weren’t able to maintain the momentum the 50 million TV viewers created for us,” said Shepard.
Few companies had websites, he said, and those that did weren’t focused on supporting an international clientele. The Libra Foundation has given the center a $150,000 grant to develop a European tourism strategy for northern Maine, said Shepard, and the group has developed a new website, www.discovernorthernmaine.com, as part of that effort.
Connections between the two regions include common languages — French, in particular, is strong in the St. John Valley — as well as similar terrain and climates, Shepard noted. The connections make a visit comfortable for Northern Europeans, said Shepard. A visit to northern Maine isn’t a five-star visit, he said. It’s not a visit to Aspen, or Steamboat Springs or Tahoe — but that’s OK, he said.
“The difference is to be embraced, it creates a warm experience for people,” said Shepard. “It’s hunting lodges, bed-and-breakfasts, community restaurants. Put together with the outdoor experience in northern Maine, it is a powerful package we have to offer.”
Europeans are coming to Maine, but they’re visiting the southern part of the state and the Bar Harbor region. Most fly into Boston, he said, and there are daily flights from Logan to Bangor International Airport. By leveraging the biathlon exposure and putting out a robust message about northern Maine, The County may be able to attract more visitors.
Shepard said he saw a real market opportunity for a service provider to offer package deals to visitors. Like old guide companies, someone could pick up visitors in Bangor, transport them north, hook them up with guides, provide a place to stay — the whole experience, Shepard said.
Such visits sometimes lead to more than just tourism dollars, noted Janine Bisaillon-Cary, president of the Maine International Trade Center.
“We’ve seen and we know, getting people over here visiting is our first step in the door to thinking about doing business here, locating businesses here,” said Bisaillon-Cary. “It’s still one of our biggest links.”
Europe is second only to Canada in terms of foreign investment in Maine, she noted, and six of Maine’s top export markets are in Europe. The state this year launched an effort to attract more foreign investment in Maine, and highlighting similarities between northern Maine and Northern Europe by leveraging the attention on the biathlon could further that endeavor, she said.
“This is one more layer, an avenue to get more attention from potential investors,” said Bisaillon-Cary.