Maine’s camping season got off to a delayed start this year because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic but is wrapping up with record booking totals for campgrounds throughout the state.
Efforts to avoid close contact with others and dry weather — which resulted in a drought being declared throughout Maine — contributed to the high number of outdoor campers in Maine this summer. Several private campground owners say 2020 has been among their busiest ever, while state park campgrounds hit a record number of campers by the end of September, weeks before their scheduled fall closure.
The busy camping summer has been a bright spot in Maine’s 2020 tourist season, which has seen a steep drop in hotel bookings and many restaurants struggle, though many eateries have been able to adapt by increasing their to-go service or by offering seating outdoors. Many theaters, museums and other attractions throughout the state have been shuttered all year, and visitation to Acadia National Park has been down, though other tourism sectors such as weekly vacation rentals also have seen high demand.
Lori Gallo, who owns and operates Reach Knoll Campground in Brooklin, said 2020 was her busiest summer since she opened the oceanfront campground in 2015. Maine residents helped save her summer, she said, even after Maine relaxed restrictions on more out-of-state visitors in early July.
“Maine people really supported me this year,” Gallo said. “This is my busiest year so far.”
A record was also set for the 12 state-owned and operated campgrounds in Maine, despite a season that got off to a delayed start on June 1. As of the end of September, they had already hosted more than 270,000 campers this year, according to the state Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The prior record of more than 261,000 at the state campgrounds, most of which close after Indigenous Peoples Day, was set in 2018.
“We can safely assume that the coronavirus caused more Mainers to turn to state parks for camping and day use and getting outside safely,” department spokesperson Jim Britt said, adding that the lack of rain likely boosted the parks’ visitor totals.
Gallo also usually closes down after Indigenous Peoples Day in mid-October, but this year she is staying open through Halloween weekend.
“I wanted to stay open because the weather’s been so good,” Gallo said, adding that only four or five of her 40 sites were reserved for the weekend.
Gallo said that her bookings likely were boosted by the fact that none of the three campgrounds in Acadia National Park, which is about an hour away, were open this summer because of the pandemic. Another nearby campground, Old Quarry Ocean Adventures in Stonington, was sold to a new owner and did not open this summer, she said.
Even after July 1 — when New York, New Jersey and Connecticut joined the list of states whose residents could come to Maine without quarantining or testing negative for COVID-19 — most of Gallo’s customers were Maine residents, she said. Many were Mainers who normally avoid visiting the coast in summer because of high numbers of out-of-state tourists, she said.
Tom Tash, owner of Acadia East Campground in Gouldsboro, said 2020 has been the busiest of the three years he has been in business. He has only five sites spread out over 9 acres, but all five were booked throughout June, July and August, as well as at 98 percent capacity for September and 87 percent capacity for October. The campground closed this weekend, he said, and he has had to decline booking requests for November.
“All in all, we saw a 53 percent increase in business over last year,” Tash said. “The weather has been very kind to us this year. I believe we had only two cancellations due to rain.”
In The Forks, the Northern Outdoors resort did not open until July 1, but had more outdoor camping customers this summer than it has had in the past five or six years, said Russell Walters, the resort’s president.
“The summer kept picking up,” he said, adding that the resort struggled to keep enough employees to handle the workload. The resort cut back on its guided services this summer, but found it had plenty of smaller groups of customers who did things on their own. The resort will stay open for a few more weeks, close for the holidays, and then reopen after Christmas.
“If we had a wet rainy summer, I’m not sure what the result would have been,” Walters said.
The boost in camping didn’t extend to every campground. Evergreens Campground and Restaurant in Solon had “a good year,” but business still was down, said owner Lorena Albuit. Evergreens has 40 sites for RVs and tents, and its customers throughout the summer were mostly Maine residents.
The restaurant is a big part of Evergreens’ business, however, and not having that open this year was a drawback. The campground normally closes on Indigenous Peoples Day, but closed this year at the end of September as business was dropping off.
Albuit said she hopes the pandemic has subsided by Mother’s Day, which generally brings in a lot of income for her and her restaurant’s three employees.
“It would be nice to open the buffet again,” Albuit said.