March 11, 2010

Tourism industry wary of predicting impact on summer

ANN S

— By . KIM

Staff Writer

Representatives of Maine's tourism industry are monitoring swine flu developments but said Tuesday that it's too early to know whether it will put a damper on the upcoming season.

''I do have concerns that it will impact us in the summer months. The Europeans coming to the U.S. have been a big part of summer tourism. I'd hate to see that diminish,'' said Vaughn Stinson, chief executive officer of the Maine Tourism Association.

It's not clear whether international visitors will avoid Maine and other parts of the United States. The European Union's health commissioner, Androulla Vassiliou, had advised Europeans -- an important consumer group for Maine tourism, particularly in the recession -- to avoid unnecessary travel to the United States and Mexico.

She later said she was advising against travel only to areas with serious outbreaks.

Stinson and others in Maine tourism said they believe that most international visitors will continue with their plans unless the swine flu situation worsens considerably. He does worry that the level of media coverage could end up keeping visitors away.

Maine could fare better than other parts of the country because there have been no reported cases here, said Harold Daniel, director of the Center for Tourism Research, a joint operation of the University of Southern Maine and the University of Maine.

''Safety can play a major role in people's choices,'' he said.

Bob Smith was among several hundred tourism professionals attending a Discover New England summit, which was held this week at Sunday River in Newry.

Smith, the managing partner of the Sebasco Harbor Resort in Phippsburg, said that although attendees are aware of the swine flu situation, he's heard almost no mention of it from them.

International visitors account for about 5 percent to 10 percent of the resort's business. There haven't been cancellations due to swine flu, and he isn't expecting them if conditions remain the same.

''Unless this really becomes a pandemic and takes off, it's not going to change anybody's behavior,'' he said.

The United Kingdom represents the biggest international market for New England, followed by Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy. The six New England states market themselves overseas as a region through the nonprofit organization Discover New England.

European travelers are attractive because they typically take longer trips than their American counterparts, spend more money and tend to make plans well in advance and stick to them.

There's no way to know exactly how many European visitors visit Maine. State tourism officials say that the average European visitor's stay lasts 15 days, although they are likely to spend time in a number of states, not just Maine.

Last year, the United States had 12.2 million visitors from Western Europe, an increase of 12 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce's Office of Travel and Tourism Industries. The number of overseas arrivals in Boston, a major port of entry for Europeans visiting Maine, was 532,013, an increase of 2 percent.

Preliminary information indicated that there would be about the same or slightly more European visitors to Maine this year, said Greg Dugal, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association. But he believes that Maine could suffer if a sizable flu outbreak occurs in Boston, for instance.

''It's way too early to tell. Every minute we look at TV, it changes,'' Dugal said.

Foreign travelers account for about 10 percent to 15 percent of the business of Cap'n Fish's Whale Watch in Boothbay Harbor. Owner John Fish said he's had whale-watching groups from the United Kingdom book over the winter, and he's had no cancellations.

''The economy's a lot bigger factor than swine flu,'' he said.

Chris Fogg, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said it would be premature to worry at this point. He believes area businesses are aware but taking a wait-and-see attitude.

''I think we're not even sure what we're dealing with yet,'' he said. ''Certainly, we don't want to panic.''

Staff Writer Ann S. Kim can be contacted at 791-6383 or at:

akim@pressherald.com

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