The number of tourists coming to Maine reached a five-year high last year, but the rate of growth slowed and tourist spending flatlined.

Roughly 36.7 million tourists visited Maine in 2017, a 2.5 percent increase over 2016 and about 8.8 million more visitors than in 2012, according to statistics from the Maine Office of Tourism released Wednesday at the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism in Portland.

Visitation grew at a slower clip in 2017 compared with the previous four years, when visits jumped 6 percent a year on average, about three times the national rate, said Steve Lyons, director of the Maine Office of Tourism.

Last year might be a statistical anomaly, but it also could mean Maine’s tourism economy is showing a realistic growth rate, Lyons said.

“Long story short, 6 percent a year is awesome, to sustain that is a little bit of a challenge,” he said.

Although more tourists came to Maine, their spending increased only 0.4 percent to about $6 billion, virtually flat from the year before.

The state assesses tourism spending in six categories: retail, restaurant/food, transportation, gasoline, lodging and recreation. Two of those categories – lodging and retail – both showed losses compared with 2016. Tourist lodging was down 3.2 percent and retail spending down 0.7 percent.

The lodging numbers were surprising because Maine Revenue Services had reported that 2017 taxable lodging sales – to tourists, businesses and residents – broke the $1 billion mark for the first time.

The state uses DPA, a Portland-based research and analytics firm, to provide its tourism industry estimates. The company uses information from annual surveys of 4,000 people.

That means there are likely some discrepancies with the data, but it is still valuable to track trends, Lyons said. He said overall tourist spending could have been suppressed by persistent labor shortages that forced some seasonal hotels, restaurants, stores and attractions to close earlier than they wanted, or to reduce hours.

“Obviously, workforce is a huge issue,” but it is hard to say whether that definitively had a direct impact on spending, Lyons said.

Workforce development was a major theme of this year’s conference, held at the Holiday Inn by the Bay. Chris Fogg, CEO of the Maine Tourism Association, unveiled local public service announcements highlighting career possibilities in the tourism industry.

“Workforce is front and center for our industry,” Fogg said. “It is a problem we will need to resolve if we are to continue to grow.”

About 106,800 people had jobs in the tourism industry last year, about 16 percent of the state’s workforce, according to the tourism office.

Not all areas of the state saw the same impact from tourism. Statewide, visits increased an average of 2.5 percent, but Portland saw a 6 percent spike after years of relatively flat growth, said Lynn Tillotson, CEO of Visit Portland, the regional tourism bureau.

“There is more traffic in the winter, spring and holidays than we have seen in the past,” she said.

Portland’s overall development, including new hotel construction, has probably helped bring people into the city, Tillotson said.

Another bright spot in the 2017 tourism figures was the increase in first-time visitors to the state, which hit 5.3 million, a five-year high. New visitors have come from the Boston area and parts of the mid-Atlantic like Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., where the state has directed its marketing campaign.

Off-season visitation also increased, with a 3.5 percent jump in fall visitors and a 13 percent increase in winter travel compared with 2016. The state had its first dedicated winter tourism campaign last year, Lyons said.

Even if visitation doesn’t grow organically as it has in recent years, the tourism office can support sustainable growth by promoting non-coastal parts of the state to encourage visits at different times of the year, such as fall and winter, Lyons said.

“What we would like to see is growth above the national average, and to get people spread around to parts of the state they aren’t visiting as much,” he said.

Peter McGuire can be contacted at 791-6325 or at:

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