Hurricane Earl may have been too far away to do any physical damage to Maine, but it still managed to hurt the state’s tourism industry.

After a warm, sunny summer that appeared to revive tourism after a dismal 2009, the hurricane’s route up the East Coast deterred a significant number of drivers from venturing out Friday, even though the storm had little impact in the state.

Between noon and midnight Friday, slightly fewer than 31,000 vehicles passed through the York tollbooth northbound, a decrease of nearly 20 percent from last year, said Duane Douglass, the toll supervisor.

“I believe it was because of the no-show hurricane,” Douglass said.

The sun came out and traffic rebounded slightly Saturday, but not enough to make up for the drop Friday, Douglass said.

Between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. Saturday, about 28,500 cars rolled into the state, but that was up just 1,200 over last year, an increase of less than 5 percent.

Monday, those cars started heading back, going south at the rate of 3,700 cars an hour between 11 a.m., when traffic started to pick up, to 6 p.m., Douglass said. That was a slight decline from last year’s numbers.

Because of backups on the Piscataqua River Bridge, traffic in Maine was stop-and-go southbound from mile 20 – between the Wells and Kennebunk/Kennebunkport exits – to the New Hampshire border for much of the afternoon, he said.

Tourism officials said business this year has posted an increase over 2009, although the economy and rainy, cool weather a year ago combined to make it one of the industry’s worst summers ever.

Last month, the state’s restaurant industry estimated that sales were up 2 percent to 4 percent this year, and the occupancy rate at the state’s hotels was 74 percent in July, an increase of 10.7 percentage points over July 2009.

The turnaround is being attributed to a slight rebound in the economy and a dramatic reversal in the weather – June, July and August this year tied 1988 for the warmest meteorological summer ever in Portland.

To Douglass, however, the traditional end of the summer season was just like most of the others – a big rush to get on the road through Labor Day afternoon and then a sharp nose-dive in traffic after 6 p.m.

“It’s like turning off a valve,” he said about 7 p.m. “I’ve got toll collectors out here staring at empty spaces.”

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: [email protected]