Despite worries that the Trump administration’s national security and immigration policies might hurt the U.S. tourism industry, one Maine town that relies on foreign visitors is gearing up for a busy summer.
Several of President Trump’s proposals, such as a ban on travel from some Muslim-majority countries, a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and intensified border security have led some tourism experts to warn of a “Trump Slump” in international visitation.
But here in Maine, where the summer economy thrives on millions of Canadian tourists every year, Trump’s policies don’t appear to have had an effect yet, and some innkeepers say the exchange rate is a more important factor.
In Old Orchard Beach, a popular destination for generations of visiting Quebecois, 2017 is shaping up to be better than last year.
“Anytime I hear something negative about crossing the border, I am concerned,” said Michael Longtin, manager at the Sea View Inn, a 48-room hotel in downtown Old Orchard Beach.
“The president does make it seem an unwelcome country to some people. It’s unfortunate,” Longtin said. “I haven’t seen it affect our business yet, but it isn’t something I like.”
In fact, bookings are $200,000 above this time last year, said Josh Ouellette, who handles reservations at the hotel. Not all are from Canada, but it is a significant portion of the inn’s visitors. A Quebec youth basketball group has booked almost 140 rooms for May at the Sea View and nearby Waves Oceanfront Resort, both owned by Lafayette Hotels.
“I’ve gotten zero mention of politics on the phone,” Ouellette said.
CANADIAN VISITS ON UPWARD TREND
An estimated 4.5 million Canadians visited Maine in 2016 – almost 13 percent of visitation to the state – and spent more than $975 million, according to the Maine Office of Tourism. Last year marked a turnaround in Canadian visitation after a two-year decline blamed on the strong U.S. dollar.
That trend appears to be holding in 2017. About 3.2 million Canadians traveled to the U.S. in January, a 7 percent increase from the month before and the highest month of visitation in more than a year, according to Statistics Canada.
Overseas visitors are a smaller, but still important, sector for Maine. In 2015, about 142,000 overseas visitors came to the state, and spent close to $97 million. Foreign visitors from Europe, Asia and elsewhere are important because they tend to stay longer and spend more, according to Discover New England, a Portsmouth, New Hampshire-based agency that markets the region overseas.
But national tourism associations have warned that Trump’s tough “America-first” rhetoric and policies could have a chilling effect. An estimated 74.7 million international visitors came to the U.S. in 2016, and travel exports totaled $246 billion, the U.S. Travel Association said.
Since taking office, Trump has issued two travel bans on people from Muslim-majority countries, increased deportations, ordered that thousands of border patrol and customs enforcement agents be hired, imposed new checks on visa applicants, and proposed enhanced vetting procedures for foreigners coming to the U.S.
Tourism Economics, a consulting company from Wayne, Pennsylvania, in February projected that the country could lose 6.3 million visitors and $10.8 billion in spending in 2018 from tourists avoiding the U.S. A February report from ForwardKeys, a flight booking analysis company, showed an immediate 6.5 percent decrease in international flights after the Trump administration announced the first travel ban. Despite a travel uptick in February, the U.S. Travel Association warned of a long-term decline of international visitors in a February report.
MOTEL OWNER RAISES CONCERNS IN LETTER
Trump’s “rhetoric and policies, including travel restrictions and his anti-immigrant stance, pose risks to international traveler sentiment, while the stronger dollar continues to weigh on our competitiveness as a global destination,” the association said.
This winter, Marc Bourassa, co-owner of the Kebek 3 Motel in Old Orchard Beach, began receiving calls from longtime Canadian guests who said that crossing the border had become more difficult and U.S. customs officers had treated them rudely. That followed reports in the Canadian media about citizens who were questioned and others who were turned away at the border after trying to enter the U.S.
Bourassa sent a letter in February to Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, to register his concern.
“I am writing to make you aware of a problem that could be devastating for Maine tourism,” Bourassa said. “Recent border strategies designed to control illegal immigration are causing our Canadian neighbors to feel insecure and afraid to travel to the United States.” He warned that negative media about the border would help a growing “boycott Trump” movement in Canada.
Since writing the letter, he has heard only positive reports from the border, and so far the impact of the Trump administration on his business has been minimal, Bourassa said in an interview. About 90 percent of his guests are Canadian, he said.
“Probably the greater impact, as far as the Canadian trade is concerned, is the exchange rate,” Bourassa said. The current exchange rate is about 75 cents to the U.S. dollar.
Elsewhere in Maine, people are taking a wait-and-see approach. In Bar Harbor, it is too early to tell if Trump’s stance will deter visits from Canadians, Europeans and Asians, a substantial proportion of the town’s tourist trade, said Martha Searchfield, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce.
“Everybody has seen the news, I’m not sure they know how it is going to affect their business,” she said.
VISITORS’ FINANCES TRUMP POLITICS
Anxiety about the new presidency is par for the course, said Chip Gray, general manager of the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport. Trump and U.S. politics are hot conversation with international guests, but that’s usually the case regardless of who is president. Pocketbooks, not politics, are what determine guests’ decision to book a room, he said.
“I’ve been answering these kinds of questions for 40 years,” Gray said. “When we see a significant change, it is invariably because of the exchange rate.”
John Nicolai, a lobsterman who works with the Bangor-based Maine-China Network, doesn’t anticipate an effect on Maine’s growing number of tourists from Asia, specifically China.
“As far as Asian tourism is concerned, I don’t really think it is a factor,” he said. China was the second-largest market for overseas visitors to New England in 2015, with 266,000 arrivals.
More than 1,000 Chinese students study in Maine, and Maine lobster is in huge demand in the country. Nicolai ran lobster boat tours from Bar Harbor until last year, and now gives lectures on lobstering to tour groups, including several from China booked this summer.
At the Paradise Park Resort Campground in Old Orchard Beach, Mike Halle was getting ready to open his campground in two weeks.
Halle has operated the family-owned campground for 21 years. His family is originally from Quebec and he regularly speaks with family in Canada. About half of his bookings come from Canadian families, and none of his regular guests intend to skip this year because of the Trump presidency.
“It doesn’t matter if the president is Trump, or Clinton, or Bush or Obama,” he said.
“We’re the USA, we’re going to provide good service, don’t worry about it.”
Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at: