GUEST COLUMN

More to tourism than mottoes and marketing

Posted April 22, 2011, at 8:42 p.m.

The Bangor Daily News’s March 2 editorial “Don’t Forget Tourism” was a forceful reminder to our new governor and Legislature that tourism is crucial for Maine’s economic prosperity and that the Maine Office of Tourism’s marketing campaign is a key, high-return investment. However, promotion alone will not achieve the full economic potential of Maine’s extraordinary tourism sector.

Since the tourism office’s marketing budget comes from a fraction of the meals and lodging tax, it is essentially paid for by tourists. I share the editors’ view that it should be kept immune from budget-cutting pressures.

The editors also make a persuasive case that “If Maine can grow its tourism numbers, it should direct those visitors and their dollars away from the coast and inland.” After all, the Office of Tourism motto is “There’s More to Maine” — more than lighthouses, lobsters and L.L. Bean.  BDN readers understand that interior Maine suffers from chronic economic distress and urgently needs investment in potential growth sectors.

Here’s the catch: “Directing visitors inland” takes more than brilliant advertising. Many traditional recreational activities and destinations are in long-term decline with lower participation in camping, hunting, rafting and alpine skiing and fewer visits to Baxter, the Allagash, and Maine’s legendary sporting camps.  We must reinvent rural Maine to appeal to 21st century tourists.

There’s also good news. The “great recession” led Mainers to take more “staycations” close to home. Rural tourism has begun to recover, and great snow conditions this season have boosted winter sports.

There’s even better news. Rural regions and towns have ambitious plans to strengthen their appeal as destinations and as gateways to nature. Scores of leisure and hospitality businesses are ramping up quality to attract discriminating customers.

The Piscataquis Tourism Authority, the Franklin County Tourism Network, and other regional initiatives have set out investment needs. The Maine Center for Economic Policy (MECEP) recently surveyed 75 rural tourism stakeholders and leaders who identified their top priorities:

  1. Transportation infrastructure, especially better roads.
  2. Downtown revitalization targeted to the most promising destination communities.
  3. Quality “green infrastructure” — trails, signage, scenic byways, etc. — to complement outstanding and accessible lands and waters.
  4. Universal broadband and cell phone connectivity to meet tourism businesses’ needs and tourists’ demands.
  5. Increased support for arts, culture and heritage: the “creative economy.”

MECEP has proposed a bond package, federal cost-sharing mechanisms, and other creative ways to finance these destination investments. It emphasizes that the payoff goes beyond boosting tourism to enhance residents’ quality of life and help attract new settlers.

The Maine Woods Consortium, a growing network of businesses, non-profits and state agencies, has used philanthropic and federal funding to launch two initiatives and explore a third.

Through Maine Woods Discovery, six highly regarded outdoor recreation providers have created summer and winter tour packages to tap new markets. Maine Huts and Trails packages dining and lodging at its Flagstaff Lake facility with pontoon boat excursions exploring Flagstaff’s history, landscape and wildlife. In the shadow of Mt. Katahdin, the New England Outdoor Center offers a women’s weekend package, combining outdoor recreation and gourmet dining with knitting workshops.

The Maine Woods Tourism Training Initiative (MWTTI) recognizes that outstanding quality is crucial, both to attract discriminating tourists and create quality jobs. In MWTTI’s first year, stakeholders and training professionals in three pilot counties designed a mix of frontline employee and owner-manager training activities. One hundred forty-three people representing 90 businesses and non-profits participated in training activities. This year, MWTTI has expanded to serve six of seven Maine Woods counties with flexible curricula combining workshops, written materials, online resources and DVDs.

Finally, the Maine Woods Consortium is exploring the level of business interest in a Maine Woods Tourism Quality Mark. From Alaska to Australia, similar programs have established distinctive brands by certifying tourism businesses that offer world-class service while contributing to nature conservation, cultural vitality and local economies. In Maine, feedback from initial interviews and focus groups is encouraging — stay tuned!

The consortium’s initiatives receive excellent support from the Office of Tourism (new director Carolann Ouellette has been part of the network from its inception), the University of Maine’s Center for Tourism Research and Outreach, and the Maine Community College System.

The state faces tough choices among competing uses for its limited general revenues and bonding capacity, but energizing Maine’s rural economy — by investing in tourism destinations, quality tourism products and tourism marketing — deserves priority.

David Vail teaches economics at Bowdoin College and serves on the Maine Woods Consortium’s tourism committee.

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