Maine’s sprawling tourism industry has survived one of the slowest and most surreal summers in living memory. A late rush of out-of-state tourists provided a needed boost, but whether it was enough to keep businesses afloat during the lean winter months remains to be seen.

By some measures, Maine defied expectations that the pandemic and restrictions intended to stop its spread would doom small and seasonal businesses dependent on annual mobs of tourists.

For many restaurants and hotels, May and June were a wash, as they contended with a shifting business reopening schedule and travel restrictions. But things started to pick up in July, said Bob Smith, owner of the Sebasco Harbor Resort in Phippsburg. Lifting a mandatory quarantine or negative coronavirus test for travelers from New York and New Jersey in late June paved the way to a busy August for Smith and other hotel owners.

“The second half of August was the best we’ve ever had,” Smith said.

The encouraging late summer rush will not make up for months of lost revenue this spring or the weddings and tourism groups canceled this fall, Smith said. He’s optimistic the resort will make it – early bookings for 2021 are breaking records – but more federal aid is needed so his business and those in worse shape can hold on until better days.

“I feel confident we can make it through the winter, but I’d love some help,” Smith said. “Just about every business in Maine is hoping for some more federal stimulus to survive the winter based on what we lost this summer.”

For some establishments, especially those based in the outdoors, this summer wound up being the same or better than previous years.

The only limit at Maine Coastal Kayak and Bike in Kennebunkport this summer was the number of bicycles, kayaks and scooters they had to offer, said owner Theresa Willette.

“I think we were up 30 percent from the year before,” she said. It turns out her business – an outdoor activity provider with plenty of sun and space for social distancing – was an ideal, low-risk option for a lot of visitors. Even if restrictions to curb COVID-19 are necessary next year, she expects another busy summer.

“I am in the best possible situation regarding the pandemic,” Willette said.

Campgrounds were another bright spot, offering plenty of space away from other visitors, along with fresh air and few crowds. Lovia Koscinski, owner of Riverbend Campground in Leeds, said once the summer got going, there wasn’t a big difference from last year.

“Better than expected,” Koscinski said. “I’m not sure we’ll be above last year, but it will be pretty close.”

Most of her customers are repeat visitors, but this year she noticed a lot of new faces, largely from Maine.

“The restrictions on different states were a little bit of an inconvenience, but we ended up with a little more new Maine business,” Koscinski said.

Restaurant and lodging sales rebounded strongly in July, as travel restrictions were eased and more tourists visited the state. Spending on restaurants jumped 35 percent from June to almost $256 million, and lodging sales more than doubled to over $146 million, according to the most recent data available from Maine Revenue Services.

Room occupancy in Maine soared as the summer wore on, from about 28 percent in early June to about 38  percent a month later, before topping out at 67 percent in the third week of August, according to STR, a global hospitality benchmarking firm.

The amount hotels could earn also rose, from an average of about $25 per room in early June to $108 per room in the third week of August, STR reported. Throughout August, Maine lodging far outperformed other New England states and the North American average of about 50 percent occupancy and $100 per room for that week.

Despite the rapid recovery of the state’s tourism and hospitality sector, it is likely to be one of the slowest summer seasons on record. July lodging revenue was 40 percent below the same time in 2019, and restaurant sales were down 30 percent, according to state records.

Even though hotel room bookings recovered over the summer, establishments were practically empty compared with a normal year. Hotel occupancy in mid-August was about 22 percent below where it was in 2019, according to STR.

Given its long stretches of hot, dry and sunny weather, this summer “would easily have been a record-breaking year under normal conditions,” said Tony Cameron, CEO of the Maine Tourism Association.

Even with the bright spots, sporting events, concerts and big weddings were largely absent, Cameron said. The cruise ships and bus tours that normally prop up tourism businesses during the fall also won’t arrive this year.

“It’s certainly good that we were able to see the traffic that we did, but we will never be able to make up the losses we had earlier in the season,” Cameron said. “We’re not out of the woods by any means.”

Gov. Janet Mills’ decision to let tourists from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut – but not Massachusetts – visit Maine overnight without quarantining or obtaining a negative COVID-19 test result has been sharply criticized by tourism businesses and Bay State residents.

But it may prove to have a silver lining for the state. Some businesses report receiving guests from New York and New Jersey who never visited the state before and whose experience makes them want to come back.

The amount of traffic from New York and New Jersey almost matched that from Massachusetts in August, according to transit agency transaction records from the Maine Turnpike Authority.

In August 2019, EZ-Pass transactions from agencies in the two states were 180,000 less than from Massachusetts, according to the Turnpike. This year, the difference was negligible, just over 12,000 transactions fewer, indicating a drop in traffic from the Bay State and more interest from New York and New Jersey.

The trend could be a double-edged sword, Cameron warned. New visitors may return again in future years, a central goal of the state’s tourism strategy. But travel restrictions may harm relations with Massachusetts tourists who decided to visit elsewhere this summer.

“The worry is that people who traditionally would have come to Maine may have found another destination they were able to travel to,” Cameron said. “Hopefully we don’t lose those long-term visitors.”

Policies enacted by the Mills administration that were intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 inspired the ire of some tourism establishments, but so far they have contained the pandemic in Maine with relative success.

Even with an uptick in cases and multiple new outbreaks, many connected to Sanford in York County, Maine is still one of the safest states in the country in terms of low case counts, hospitalizations and related deaths.

Mills, in an interview on Tuesday, acknowledged that the tourism industry took a tremendous hit this summer, but she said the state’s measures to contain the virus could have long-term economic benefits.

“Certainly, we’re hearing from people,” Mills said. “I think, stepping back for a moment, though, we’ve been making tough decisions ever since early March, and every one of those decisions has been painful. But the primary focus of every decision is based on my own instincts and my team’s information and the science and the data and fact-based decisions we’ve made. And of prominent economists – like President (Eric) Rosengren of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, who told me early on, he said, whatever the sector you’re talking about, you cannot have a healthy economy if you don’t have healthy people. The first and foremost priority is keeping people healthy.”

Asked if – with the benefit of hindsight – she would do anything differently, Mills said the state’s policies were made with input from all interested parties, including members of the tourism industry.

Mills said her administration has always gone back to: “What does the science require? When it comes to large gatherings, clearly that was a good decision to limit gatherings, as painful as that was. I mean, do you think any governor wants to be the person who clamps down on weddings, funerals, graduations, certain sports and certain businesses? No governor takes office wanting to damage their economy in any respect.

“When it comes to tourism economy and the hospitality industry, I’ve listened a lot more closely to locally owned businesses than to anybody else,” the governor said. “It’s their concerns I feel are first and foremost. The effect of consumer confidence on small business is what worries me. The larger businesses, the hotel chains, they’ll survive. They have investors. They have financial backing. But the smaller, locally owned businesses are who I want to help the most.”

Staff Writer Eric Russell contributed to this report.


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