Business is down 15 percent this year at Richards by the Sea, a quaint Old Orchard Beach motel where usually about half the guests are Canadian.
Some Canadians cited the sluggish economy and the weak Canadian dollar, which is worth about 78 cents now, when calling to say they couldn’t afford to visit Maine this summer, or had to cut their usual stay from five days to three, owner Lisa Gribbin said.
That left Gribbin with empty rooms on Mondays and Tuesdays in July and August, the quieter days of the high season that she usually sells out to snowbound, beach-starved Canadians months in advance.
“I’ve got some holes in my calendar this year where in the past there was none,” Gribbin said. “It’s not just me. It’s up and down the coast. The Canadians are still coming, but not as many of them as in years past, not for as long, and they’re not spending as much once they get here.”
Gribbin’s observations reflect what is shaping up to be a three-year decline in Canadian tourism, according to data from the Maine Office of Tourism. In 2013 there were approximately 5.5 million Canadian visitors, and in 2015 that number dropped to 4.1 million. Likewise, spending plummeted from $1.3 billion to just over $850 million in the same span.
The 14-year innkeeper has survived Canadian currency woes before, and Gribbin is confident the neighboring economy will eventually rebound, like it has always done. With her American bookings strong, Gribbin said 2016 will still be profitable for her.
But the economy isn’t the only thing that is worrying Canadian travelers who like to visit Maine, Gribbin said. Some of her loyal Canadian guests say they are concerned about American politics, especially the rhetoric of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. His anti-foreigner stance makes them feel unwelcome, they tell her. Although Trump has focused his remarks on Mexico, Canadians reason that someone who wants to build a wall to the south may decide one day to do the same in the north, they say.
“In all my years of doing this, I have never had a guest ask about my politics,” Gribbin said. “My own family doesn’t even ask me that. But this election, it really bothers them. They say Trump makes them feel unwelcome here.”
‘WE NEED TO INVITE PEOPLE IN’
Gribbin takes pains to describe herself as apolitical. And she thinks most of her guests are, too. They are nice, smart people who send her maple syrup as thank-you gifts and remember her birthday. But they are not keen to spend their money someplace that doesn’t want them, she said.
“I tell them, ‘You’re very welcome here, we love you,’ and it’s absolutely true,” Gribbin said. “But if Trump wins, I worry it would hurt us with our Canadians, pushing them somewhere else. We need to invite people in, not push them away.”
A stroll along the main street of Old Orchard Beach in mid-August elicited plenty of chatter about the lower numbers of Canadian guests. A poolside bartender at the Beachwood Motel said the number of Canadian visitors is down this year, but that their rooms had not gone unfilled. First-time American guests gladly exploited the availability of beachfront rooms, just a block from the Palace Playland amusement park, that often fill up a year in advance, he said. But even in a down year, he was just as likely to be serving someone ordering in French as in English.
A block away, at the Inn at Soho Square, a longtime favorite of Québécois, a clerk there agreed, saying that the slumping Canadian economy had opened the door to a new wave of first-time American guests, including many Maine families from the state’s interior who had booked a room at the start of the summer. Still, the clerk answered questions in between juggling phone calls from Montreal and hunting down extra towels for a French-speaking guest.
‘FIND WAYS TO KEEP THEM COMING’
About one out of every six people who visit Maine comes from Canada, with almost half of those coming from Ontario, according to state statistics. But the number of Canadian tourists has fallen about 25 percent over the last two years, down to 4.1 million in 2015.
It is still too early to say how many Canadians came this year, as the season is still underway. But Greg Dugal, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association and Maine Restaurant Association, says that his members tell him the downward trend is continuing in 2016.
“It’s not catastrophic or anything like that, but from everything I hear it is down,” Dugal said. “Any year the loonie dips down below 80 cents on the dollar we feel it, and we know it, and it has an impact on our businesspeople and our state economy. We do our best to try to find ways to keep them coming.”
One way to overcome the currency hurdle is to offer discounted rates to Canadian visitors. More than 80 Maine inns and attractions offered deals ranging from 15 percent off campsites in Stonington to 25 percent discounts for whitewater rafting trips in Chesuncook on a Maine Office of Tourism-sponsored website. Some hospitality managers softened deposit and minimum stay requirements for Canadians traveling early in the season or booking repeat trips.
Canadian spending also has fallen roughly 35 percent over the two-year span, to $850 million in 2015, according to the Maine Office of Tourism. The days of two or three Canadian motor coaches visiting the Bangor Mall for shopping excursions are over, at least for now, but mall general manager James Garety said the buses still come, drawn by the state’s low sales tax, but now it is one or two buses a weekend rather than three a day.
“Retail is important to Canadians, and even with a weak loonie, retail goods are still cheaper here than there, and our gas prices help, too,” Garety said. “We still have our fair share of Canadian license plates in our parking lots.”
A BOON FOR ONE MAINE CAMPGROUND
The increasing frugality of cash-strapped or anxious Canadians has been a boon for some of the more cost-conscious segments of the Maine hospitality industry, like those catering to the RV crowd, which is still drawn to Maine by its low gas prices and abundance of high-quality campgrounds.
“Our Canadian business has been very strong,” said David Berg, one of the owners of Red Apple Campground in Kennebunkport. “We have been so busy this year that we are having to turn away so many Canadians, who like to just show up without a reservation. We are sold out all the time now. We spend most of our time saying, ‘I’m sorry, we have no room.’ It’s a good problem to have.”
Berg has been in the business for 19 years, and he said he has never sold out the entire month of August, even weekdays, until the first of that month had actually arrived. But this year, most of his major sites for the entire campground were reserved in March. And all of his August sites, including early-in-the-week cabin rentals, were booked by June.
“We are getting more Canadians than ever before, but I think it’s because they can do this more cheaply than they can get away even in their own country,” Berg said. “They get hit with the currency right now, but the ones coming here tell me not to feel sorry for them because every time they go out for groceries, or fill up their gas tank, or buy someone a gift, they are saving 60 bucks, and that adds up fast.”