ROCKLAND, Maine — The sky was blue, the sun was out — and tourists on Saturday were thronging midcoast hot spots like the North Atlantic Blues Festival in Rockland and the Maine Celtic Celebration in Belfast.
Judy Hart of Rowley, Mass., wore a sparkly cowboy hat as she danced to the raucous music of Lil Ed and the Blues Imperials at Harbor Park in Rockland. It’s the fifth year she’s traveled north for the festival weekend.
“We just love the blues,” Hart said.
That kind of devotion is cause for celebration among some Maine tourism industry officials, who said this week that 2011 is shaping up to be a positive year, despite higher gas prices and a rainy start to the season.
Tourism is Maine’s most important industry, generating more than $531 million in tax revenues and supporting 176,633 jobs in 2006, according to the Maine State Planning Office.
“What we’re seeing, I think, is a good, solid season,” Dan Bookham, the executive director of the Camden-Rockport-Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce, said Friday. “There’s a nice feel in town. Retailers are happy, lodging seems pretty happy. It helps that there are these weekend events. It contributes to a real buzz in the midcoast.”
People like Bookham are hoping that the good weather and good buzz will continue, giving the tourism industry two positive years in a row. The gloomy summer of 2009, by contrast, “marked the bottom of everything. It was the depths of the recession. The weather was foul. Gas prices spiked. It was a perfect storm,” Bookham said.
Last summer, by contrast, was exemplary, according to figures from the Maine Office of Tourism. About 23.2 million people came to Maine in the summer of 2010, which was a 14 percent increase from 2009 in overnight visits and a 9 percent increase in day visitors.
Carolann Ouellette, the director of the office of tourism, said Friday that it is too soon to have solid figures showing how this season compares.
“The summer is seemingly good,” she said. “But at this point, everything’s anecdotal.”
Numbers from the Maine Turnpike Authority show that traffic is down slightly compared with last year.
Traffic declined 4.3 percent over the Fourth of July holiday weekend compared with 2010. Between January and June, the volume of passenger vehicles that came into the state at the York Toll Plaza has decreased 1.66 percent, system-wide, compared to last year, according to Maine Turnpike Authority spokesman Scott Tompkins.
“If [people] have disposable income and don’t mind paying a little more for gas, they’ll make the trip,” he said. “But with higher gas prices and economic uncertainties, they’re staying a little closer to home.”
Jeanne Curran, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Conservation, said Friday that it is hard to compare numbers with last year. In 2010, parks were open five weeks ahead of schedule, due to the “incredibly” warm spring.
She said that there were 2.6 million visitors last year — which was record-breaking attendance in the history of Maine state parks.
As of June, park attendance had decreased by 8.2 percent among both day-use visitors and campers, she said.
“We’ve had a lot of rain. We didn’t open up as soon,” Curran said. “But now, of course, the weather’s changing. I think we’ll see those July figures go back up.”
Ouellette sounded a similarly optimistic note.
“We always wish for great weather, because that helps,” she said. “Moving forward, August is looking really good, and if the weather holds out, our falls have been increasing. Our job is just to keep filling in those seasons as best we can.”