October 23, 2019
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Getting more visitors into the Maine woods can reduce ‘overtourism’ on the coast

George Danby | BDN
George Danby | BDN

Labor Day brings some relief from the summer tourist crush for those of us living on the Maine coast, though total relief must wait until the baby boomers head south on Columbus Day. This is a good time to take stock of tourism’s challenges and opportunities in two distinct Maine destinations: the coast, from Kittery to Mount Desert Island, and the Maine woods, from Oxford County in the west to Washington County Down East.

I’ve written numerous opinion pieces about Maine’s tourism strategy. This one is prompted by a spate of recent articles and social media posts lamenting Europe’s “overtourism” at hot spots like Barcelona, Spain, whose 1 million-plus residents endure more than 30 million annual visitors. As one commentator put it, “Many tourism dependent destinations are seeing the unique sense of place that characterized their hometowns vanish beneath a wave of souvenir shops, crowds, tour buses and rowdy bars. They are also suffering as local amenities and infrastructure are put under enormous strain.”

That sounds a lot like Bar Harbor, Rockland, Boothbay, Portland and Old Orchard Beach during Maine’s summer crush, though in Maine’s case we should add cruise ships to the list of congestion makers and scarce tourism worker housing to the list of impacts. Last summer, Maine hosted nearly 16 million day trippers and more than 10 million overnight visitors, the great majority headed to coastal destinations.

A few examples of European initiatives suggest ways coastal Maine might enhance the benefits of the summer tourist boom while limiting its downside:

— Region-wide destination planning backed by investments that incentivize tourists to “spread out” beyond congested prime attractions.

Local option taxes on dining and lodging, used to improve and maintain infrastructure, develop off-season events, and subsidize shoulder season discounts by hospitality businesses.

— Peak season limits or steep “congestion fees” on cars, buses and street vendors in prime tourist settings, combined with expanded off-site parking and convenient shuttle services.

— Regulation of short-term lodging rentals, like Airbnb, to ensure a supply of employee housing.

But there is a very different Maine, inland from the coast’s lobsters, lighthouses and L.L. Bean. Although interior Maine has seen visitation and spending grow substantially since the last recession, destinations like the Moosehead, Katahdin and St. John Valley regions would benefit from more tourists, especially the quality-seeking, high-spending travelers targeted by the Maine Office of Tourism’s marketing strategy. There is a promising initiative to revitalize Maine woods tourism.

The Maine Woods Consortium is a partnership of 20 business, public and nonprofit organizations, led by the Northern Forest Center, focused on developing and promoting outstanding tourism experiences and destinations. Its “triple bottom line” mission is to foster quality career opportunities, thriving rural communities and sustainable use of a region’s outstanding natural assets.

Since 2010, the consortium has launched the Maine Woods Tourism Training Initiative, delivering training courses and technical assistance to more than 275 tourism businesses and their employees. It has made small innovation grants to more than 35 tourism businesses. It founded Maine Woods Discovery, a standards-based cooperative marketing initiative among some of the region’s premier outdoor adventure providers. Now, with crucial assistance from the Maine Office of Tourism, the consortium is helping stakeholders frame strategies in eight high-potential rural destinations: Bethel and Maine West, Rangeley and the High Peaks, Kennebec Valley, Moosehead Lake, Katahdin region, the St. John Valley, and Bold Coast.

Leaders from these regions are mobilizing to develop gateway communities that offer quality dining, lodging, events and other amenities and link them with the recreational resources (trails, signage, scenic byways) and activities (wildlife watching, hiking, snowmobiling) at the heart of the Maine woods experience. Innovations like the Moosehead Lake branding initiative, Carrabassett Valley’s emergence as a mountain biking mecca, and the designation of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument have made the national news.

Successful destination development requires organizational capacities and skills that have not been widespread in the region. Thus, some of the consortium‘s most important work brings Maine woods leaders and tourism stakeholders together for networking “destination rallies” and a new Community Destination Academy. The Office of Tourism has gone well beyond its traditional marketing focus to support these efforts, and several foundations, recognizing tourism’s central role in community revitalization, are contributing generous support.

Who knows, with effective coast-interior marketing coordination, the combination of amenity rich Maine woods destinations and smart visitor management on the coast might encourage many more tourists to add interior Maine to their travel plans.

David Vail is an economics professor emeritus at Bowdoin College in Brunswick and a member of the Maine Woods Consortium steering committee.

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