This tourism season in Maine is shaping up to be a good year. Maybe the best in years.
Consumers this spring spent more money at hotels and restaurants than they have in a decade, and hotel managers say they are pleased with advanced bookings for the summer and fall.
“With the economy improving and people feeling more comfortable with everything, we are seeing steady increases of reservations over the year before,” said Chip Gray, general manager of the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport. “That makes me think that the trend is here to stay.”
Lynn Archer, who owns two restaurants in Rockland – Archer’s on the Pier and the Brass Compass Cafe – said her business is on pace to be the busiest in years.
“From my point of view, people are tired of grumbling about the economy and have gone back to living,” she said.
State sales tax data indicate the tourism industry enjoyed a solid start this year. Although many business owners grumbled about the lousy spring weather, taxable sales at restaurants and hotels for the first four months of 2014 amounted to $682 million, a 2.7 percent increase from the same period last year. This was the strongest four-month start in a calendar year since at least 2004, according to the oldest data available from Maine Office of Policy Management, which manages a database for tax records.
Sales receipts are an indicator of a robust tourism season because they reflect consumers’ willingness to spend discretionary dollars. But other indicators – from resort hotels to family campgrounds – are telling as well. In May, the revenues per available hotel room in Maine was up 1.2 percent over last May, according to Smith Travel Reports, which uses data primarily from chain hotels.
According to the 2014 forecast by TravelClick, which helps chain hotels make reservations, the number of hotel rooms reserved by groups in Maine will be up 8.4 percent through October of this year and the average rate on those rooms is up 3.5 percent.
The number of passengers arriving in Maine on cruises is expected to rise about 2.6 percent from 2013 – to 265,113, while the number of visits by cruise ships is up a full 26 percent over the 2013 season.
People are also traveling more by car. From June 1 to 24, there were 5.4 million toll plaza transactions on the Maine Turnpike, a 5 percent increase from the same period last year, according to the Maine Turnpike Authority.
The authority expects the first week of July will see traffic increase by 1.5 percent to 2 percent over the same period last year.
Between July 2 and 6, 2.1 million New Englanders will travel at least 50 miles, according to a forecast by AAA Northern New England.
Although gas prices are up 25 cents per gallon over a year ago, people are driving more because the economy is improving, said Pat Moody, the company’s spokesman.
“I think the economy got off to a sluggish start, and we had a very cold winter, but it’s building momentum as the year progresses,” Moody said.
ALL ABOUT THE WEATHER
The weather is a huge factor, said Greg Dugal, president of the Maine Restaurant Association and executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association. Because families these days are more likely to take a few trips each summer rather than stay in one place for two weeks, he said, many will wait for a weather forecast before making a decision to travel.
The industry doesn’t necessarily need great weather in Maine, though. Rather, it needs miserable heat waves in the big cites on the East Coast, said Rauni Kew, a manager with Inn by the Sea, a 61-room luxury hotel in Cape Elizabeth.
In that regard, this week’s weather was great for business, with Boston’s temperatures exceeding 90 degrees Tuesday and Wednesday, along with humidity levels topping 70 percent.
“When we get sticky weather in New York and Boston, that really gets them making reservations, ” she said.
Although summer officially arrived two weeks ago, the “high season” for tourism in Maine won’t arrive until after the Fourth of July. Dugal said the season has been shifting, starting later in the summer and extending into fall.
A couple decades ago, the summer tourism season in Maine stretched from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Dugal said. These days, the season begins between the Fourth of July and middle of July and extends to mid- or late October.
June used to be the industry’s third strongest month of the year, he said. But since the late 1990s, September has been the third strongest month, he said, with June in the fourth position. August has remained in the top position.
Dugal said that baby boomers traveling without children have helped stretch the season well beyond Labor Day.
“People have realized that weather in the fall is better than weather in the spring,” he said.
For campground owners, cold winters translate into more business in the summer because customers who suffer from cabin fever can’t wait to get outdoors, said David Berg, owner of the Red Apple Campground in Kennebunkport.
Business at his campground is up 15 percent over last year, he said.
“Last winter was deep and cold, and our website has gone crazy from February on,” he said.
Mary Hastings, owner of Flat Rock Bridge Family Resort, a campground in Lebanon, said business in June was up 8 percent, and every one of her 350 spaces is occupied for the Fourth of July weekend. That’s the first time thats happened since the campground opened 10 years ago, she said.