Sarah Diment chuckled as she recalled overhearing Canadian guests at her Ogunquit inn talk about how especially nice the U.S. border guards had been as they traveled into the United States.
It was an unusually upbeat conversation this week, given others she’s heard since President Donald Trump’s administration took office. The traditionally cordial relationship between the two countries — which share a border and important bilateral trade in items from lobsters to forestry products — has suffered under the administration’s political insults and tariffs against its northern neighbor.
“I have heard some Canadian guests saying they were not happy with the tenor in the United States, the political situation and the overall rhetoric,” said Diment, owner-operator of the Beachmere Inn in Ogunquit, which has 73 rooms. She is the third generation of her family running the inn, whose business is 15 percent to 25 percent Canadian visitors, depending on the season.
“They’ve said they’re not excited about spending money in America,” she said. “People on both sides of the border are trying to figure this out, so there’s a wait-and-see attitude.”
So far, innkeepers and restaurant owners said the political discord has not discouraged Canadian tourists from flocking to beaches in southern Maine, where towns including Ogunquit, Old Orchard Beach and Kennebunkport have extended the welcome mat. Official state statistics won’t be available until later this year.
Diment, like many inn and restaurant owners along the southern Maine coast — a major attraction for Canadians each summer — isn’t seeing any direct effect so far from trade tensions between the United States and Canada. She said a lot of the Beachmere’s guests are generational Canadian visitors whose families have come year after year.
Erica Stagg, general manager of Joseph’s By The Sea restaurant in Old Orchard Beach, said she hasn’t noticed any fewer Canadian customers. The restaurant typically has 35 percent to 40 percent of its customers from Canada during the summer season, and so far, the numbers are about the same as last year.
“It’s been a very busy season so far,” Stagg said. “But the season is only two weeks in.”
David Berg, owner of Red Apple Campground in Kennebunkport, gets about 10 percent of his business from Canada. He is booked for the summer, and has reservations into 2020 because of repeat customers.
“I don’t see any immediate result of the tariffs. We’ve had no cancellations,” he said. “We’re all concerned, but hoping for the best.”
Tourism off to a strong start
“It’s been a pretty strong summer so far,” said Chris Fogg, CEO of the Maine Tourism Association in Hallowell. “I haven’t heard political discussions from anyone.”
The group has seven statewide visitor centers.
His experience is similar to that of other tourism associations.
“I think the fears related to Maine tourism are overstated,” said Steve Hewins, president and CEO of the Maine Restaurant Association and the Maine Innkeepers Association in Augusta.
“I’ve not heard that there’s an issue with Canadians coming here,” he said. “Canadian tourism has always been strong for Maine.”
The biggest issue now is getting enough workers, he said. The worker shortages started last year with a federal cap on H2-B visas for foreign workers.
Diment said she also has had trouble getting local students and teens to help during the summer.
Hewins said total tourism has increased in the first four months of this year over the same time last year, when tourism numbers are typically lower than the summer and fall high seasons.
Hewins, who uses Maine Revenue Services gross revenue figures for tourism data, said lodging was up 20.9 percent from January through April of this year over last year to $137.75 million.
Restaurant revenue was up 3.9 percent to $725.85 million. He said there are more restaurants than lodging places in Maine so revenue tends to be much higher. The figures include both tourism and stays by local people.
“If the revenue tracks the way it is going so far this year, we’ll set another record,” he said. Tourism revenue set records the past three years, he said.
There are no breakdowns of where tourists are from, but he said most are from New England, the mid-Atlantic states and Canada. Top spots to visit are Old Orchard Beach and other parts of Maine’s southern coast, as well as Bar Harbor and Portland.
Official tourism numbers for the summer season, which began two weeks ago, won’t be available until this winter, said Steve Lyons, director of the Maine Office of Tourism in Augusta. So it won’t be clear until then whether political arguments have dampened tourism.
Lyons said Canadian visitor numbers rose during the past couple years. Canadians tend to come from Quebec, Ontario and New Brunswick.
Tourism is a large industry for Maine, reaching $6 billion in value and 36.7 million total visitors in 2017. The value of tourism rose 0.4 percent, and the number of tourists was up 2.5 percent from 2016. The 2017 numbers showed the fifth consecutive year of visitation increases, according to the Maine Office of Tourism’s 2017 annual report.
Maine Revenue Services said the taxable lodging money broke the $1 billion mark for the first time in 2017.
Stronger loonie benefits Maine tourism
The lower numbers of Canadian tourists the past few years trace to exchange rates between the Canadian dollar, or loonie, and the U.S. dollar.
“Currency is the most defining force in Canadian tourism here,” said Lisa Gribbin, owner of Richard’s by the Sea, a 12-room inn.
“Canadians are generally sensitive to the exchange rate, so there was a downturn in Canadian tourists the past few years, but that’s turned around,” said Fogg of the Maine Tourism Association.
The Maine Office of Tourism said in its 2017 annual report that exchange rates got better for Canadians by the fall of 2017.
The exchange rate fell from 96 cents Canadian in July 2013 to 77 cents Canadian in July 2017, but began rebounding to close to 80 cents by August 2017. The rate has hovered between that number and 76 cents to the U.S. dollar today.
There’s an upside the the slowly improving exchange rate for Maine establishments as well.
The Beachmere’s Diment said her inn isn’t getting the same requests for discounted rates that it did in previous years.
“We sometimes offered 10 percent on a case-by-case basis,” she said. “We did it last spring and fall, but we can’t do it in the summer season.”
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