For decades the University of Maine system prepared qualified engineers and managers to take good jobs in the pulp and paper industry. But there was never anything similar for people looking for work in Maine’s biggest industry, tourism.

That is going to change next fall. The University of Maine trustees have approved a four-year degree program in tourism and hospitality at the University of Southern Maine, which is now accepting applications for admission next fall.

This is an important development and one that is welcome and long overdue.

It’s well established that tourism is a major contributor to our economy. Last summer alone, leisure and hospitality businesses supported 78,000 jobs and brought $4.4 billion into the state. But it could be even bigger.

Maine is in a global competition for visitors, and its natural assets could be made even more attractive by a more professional approach to marketing the state and taking care of visitors after they arrive.

Graduates of the program will be able to find jobs in existing businesses and to start new businesses that will do more to enhance Maine’s value to potential visitors. They may also wind up working with municipal planning departments, working to preserve and enhance local attractions.

The new program is a joint effort between the university and the industry, and will employ an interdisciplinary approach, grounding all students in subjects like business, planning, recreation and environmental science. They will learn about the impact tourism can have on communities, and will learn how to preserve what makes Maine special.

This kind of effort has been slow to appear because unlike the paper-making and shipbuilding industries that are dominated by large, wealthy companies, tourism and hospitality is made up of hundreds of mostly small businesses that act independently. A common educational background for people who are looking to make this a career will help the industry grow, producing more jobs for more Maine people.

At a time when most news coming from government is about cutting back services, it’s good to hear about an investment of public resources that will eventually benefit the whole state.