BAR HARBOR, Maine — Tourism officials in Maine believe there is one thing the state needs this summer to have a good tourism season.
Sunshine, and plenty of it.
So far, so good. Unlike last summer, when wet weather helped aggravate the doldrums of a lethargic economy, this spring has been unusually warm and relatively dry. With temperatures in recent days having spiked above 90 degrees in many parts of the state, some days have resembled August more than May. And the month’s rainfall, which by Friday was less than 2 inches, is about half of the amount Maine got in May 2009, according to weather data compiled by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
For Greg Dugal, executive director of Maine Innkeepers Association, the hotter it is, the better. If temperatures consistently approach or surpass 90 degrees in southern New England and other Northeast states, there’s a good chance Maine will get a lot of visitors seeking to beat the heat, he said earlier this week.
“Obviously, weather plays a critical role,” Dugal said. “It’s hotter than a cannon [outside].”
Innkeepers, restaurateurs, shop owners and others involved in the tourism trade have been taking advantage of the sunshine to get ready for this weekend, when the Memorial Day holiday causes Maine’s tourist traffic to spike upward, signaling the start of summer. Many seasonal businesses already have opened for the year, as the pleasant weather has attracted weekend visitors and others who want to avoid the summer crowds to the state’s beaches, parks, lakes and scenic villages.
Dugal said the Maine Innkeepers Association is hoping for a better year than 2009. He said overall bookings last year were down about 7 percent — the first year in decades that there was a decrease in Maine.
“Last year just absolutely crushed it,” Dugal said of Maine’s string of increasingly busy tourist seasons.
“There was a fair amount of pain to go around.”
Dugal said recent fluctuations in the stock market show that the economy is still a “nagging concern,” but he thinks the occupancy rate for Maine lodging businesses can go up 1 or 2 percentage points this year.
Advance bookings for the Memorial Day weekend for many hotels weren’t quite at the 50 percent capacity that they would like, he said. Bookings in the Brunswick-Freeport area are doing all right, thanks to the families of graduating college students, but farther up the coast they generally haven’t been doing as well, according to Dugal.
Still, AAA is predicting a 5 percent increase from last year in Memorial Day weekend traffic, according to Dugal. Some have suggested the economy may be improving to the point that people are comfortable again with going on short vacations, he said, but even those who don’t see the economy as improving might think it is stable enough to take trips they didn’t take in 2009.
Maine could benefit from this “pent-up” demand for weekend and weeklong getaways, he said.
“All signs are pointing to an improved year,” Dugal said. “I’m hearing from almost everybody that there is interest in [making reservations for] the fall.”
At state campgrounds, activity has been up this year, mainly because of the decent weather, according to Jeanne Curran, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Conservation.
She said this year is the 75th anniversary of Maine’s state park system and that several state campgrounds — Bradbury Mountain, Camden Hills, Cobscook Bay, Lake St. George and Sebago Lake — opened early. The department has been promoting the 75th anniversary of the park system, which generates $100 million annually to the state economy, by instituting a new park passport program and by scheduling special park events throughout the summer, she said.
“We opened five campgrounds early this year and got campers right away,” Curran said. “We think [visitation] is going to be very good. The better the weather, the better things will be.”
Jensen Bissell, park director for Baxter State Park, said Friday that he expects visits at Maine’s signature state park will be about the same this year as in 2009. The good weather has boosted visits to Baxter this spring, he said, and some summit trails on Mount Katahdin already have been opened, which is unusual before Memorial Day. He said he expects good weather over the holiday will help draw people to the park.
“We’ve had two years of very wet, rainy springs,” Bissell said. “We’ve had a very busy week [getting ready].”
Patricia Eltman, director of the Maine Office of Tourism, said Friday that the weather more than gas prices is what draws tourists to Maine. She said that with tourism numbers having been down in 2009, this summer is expected to be an improvement.
“The feeling is that this year is going to be better,” she said.
Many tourist businesses, including shops, have opened early, Eltman said, and advance bookings for state and private campgrounds have been brisk. If the economy remains relatively stable and if temperatures remain relatively warm, the industry will do well, she predicted.
“It’s going to be a great weekend weather-wise,” she said. “People are very upbeat this year.”
Eben Salvatore, director of local operations for Ocean Properties on Mount Desert Island, said Friday that the recent weather has made a big difference to the company’s local bookings this past month.
The lodging company has opened up its outdoor pools and eating areas earlier than usual, he said, and all of the firm’s Bar Harbor hotels are booked solid for this Saturday night.
“It’s been very notable,” Salvatore said of the weather’s effects. “This year, we’re sold out [for Memorial Day weekend].”
The economy seems to have improved since last year, he said, and continued balmy weather in Maine certainly would help draw vacationers to the state.
“The heat in the cities is always what gets us a lot of business,” Salvatore said. “The way I see it, Mother Nature owes us one for last year. Last year was a train wreck.”
Vaughn Stinson of the Maine Tourism Association largely blamed 2009’s disappointing numbers on “12 weeks of rotten weather” that beset Maine in midsummer. But he said that, with the economy, many people have been looking to spend less money on their vacations.
“People deprived themselves [of high-end expenses] last year,” Stinson said. “They cut back. We saw that.”
High air fares and volcanic disruptions of flight patterns to Europe will help keep people closer to home this summer, he said, and focus on the Gulf of Mexico oil spill likely will dampen tourism to the Gulf Coast area. But more states are being more visible with advertising campaigns to draw tourists and to encourage their residents to visit local attractions, he said.
Stinson said he thinks the economy is more stable than it was a year ago, even if it is still lackluster. He said that Maine offers competitive prices to tourists and that, statistically, last year’s poor weather is unlikely to make an encore appearance this summer.
“We have a very good product that is priced affordably for people,” Stinson said. “We are off to a very good start.”