Kandi Sullivan, lead bartender at Stripers Waterside Restaurant at the Breakwater Inn and Spa in Kennebunkport, carries dishes and glasses from one of the dining igloos on the back deck of the restaurant on Friday evening. Breakwater’s general manager expects business this summer to be the same or better than in 2019, which was a historically strong year for Maine tourism. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Memorial Day weekend is still months away, but Maine’s tourism industry is preparing for a summer many hope will put it firmly on the road to recovery from huge job and revenue losses last year.

The Breakwater Inn and Spa in Kennebunkport is fully booked for weddings and is now scheduling people for 2022 and beyond. Based on how many guests the 35-room hotel already has on its books, General Manager Karl Whipple expects business to be the same or better than in 2019, which was a historically strong year for Maine tourism.

“It is very strong, which leads us to believe travel this year will be very strong,” Whipple said. “Our phones are busy, people want to come. They are optimistic about the vaccine and the way things have opened up across the country.”

The state intends to drop many of the travel and occupancy restrictions that kept tourism down last year. Campgrounds, hotels, tours and wedding venues are filling up. And many expect that Maine’s open spaces and low rates of COVID-19 will attract the droves of summer visitors it traditionally welcomes.

“We know the industry is prepared to welcome people because of the procedures and protocols already put in place,” Maine Tourism Association CEO Tony Cameron said. “It isn’t like last year, when we were up against an unknown factor no one had seen before. We also know Maine is in a good position – there’s lots of outdoor recreation, people can easily social distance. All those things factored in, we’re in a good place to welcome people back.”

In a recent survey, almost 70 percent of the association’s members were optimistic Maine tourism would do significantly better than last year and start to recover. Almost one-third of the 470 respondents said their reservations for spring and fall were close to or at the same level as 2019, while slightly more than one-third said reservations were only 25-76 percent of what they had been that year.

“Anything that happens this year will more than likely be better than last, and travelers and consumers know what to expect,” Cameron said.

Some parts of Maine’s tourism economy, such as charter buses, group tours, cruise ships, concerts and other mass entertainment, are still uncertain or not happening, he added.

“We are definitely not there yet,” Cameron said. “It is going to be a recovery and it is going to take time.”

A BATTERED INDUSTRY

The coronavirus pandemic battered Maine’s mammoth summer tourism industry last year. Strict interstate travel rules kept many travelers away until July, and residents of Massachusetts – an important tourist market – were barred from freely entering until September. Hotels, restaurants and tour companies had to adjust with occupancy limits, enhanced cleaning regimes and documents to confirm guests’ compliance with the rules.

After years of steady growth, tourist visits to Maine tumbled 27 percent in 2020 – about 10 million fewer than the year before. Direct tourism spending fell from $6.5 billion to $4.8 billion, while lodging sales dropped by 35 percent, according to the Maine Office of Tourism.

Things are already different this year. Gov. Janet Mills announced this month that all residents of New England states and those who have recently had COVID-19 or are fully vaccinated are exempt from testing and self-quarantine travel requirements. By May 1, all U.S. travelers will be exempt from restrictions unless they are from a state with a high prevalence of COVID-19.

Under the new state guidelines, venues will be able to host larger gatherings by the end of May, with indoor spaces allowed to have 75 percent of their occupancy limit and outdoor venues 100 percent of their limit.

The Samoset Resort in Rockport showed a noticeable uptick in reservations and inquiries after the governor relaxed restrictions, General Manager Connie Russell said. This year will likely be better than last, but it is too early to say whether it will match the before times.

“Definitely, the consumer confidence has improved,” Russell said. “Maybe it won’t be as strong as 2019, but it is a definite improvement.”

Many guests canceled or didn’t come at all last summer because they worried about breaking Maine’s travel rules, he added.

“Last year, there was an impression that if they came to Maine and even if they met certain criteria, there were still the COVID police out there that would hassle them,” Russell said. “There was a shift once the news came out that restrictions were lifted. People have been in a holding pattern waiting for themselves to get vaccinated, and areas they wanted to visit to loosen restrictions.”

Some Portland tour companies feel the same way. After staying afloat last year, Explore Portland, a small tour company, is fielding calls, booking tours and feeling better about the season, owner Catherine Escamilla said.

“For the past month, we’ve been booking people – it’s been steady, not what it was like in 2019, but steady,” she said.

Many people ask what the company’s cancellation policies are, possibly concerned COVID-19 could force them to abandon the trip.

“You can tell people are researching and trying to decide what they want to do this year,” Escamilla said.

Construction is well underway at the new Canopy by Hilton at the corner of Center and Commercial streets in Portland, photographed Monday. Maine’s tourism industry expects a booming summer season this year after a disappointing 2020. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

RIDES, HOTELS, PARKS

Funtown-Splashtown USA, the state’s largest amusement park, will reopen this year after taking 2020 off. General Manager Cory Hutchinson said the park didn’t know how it could operate safely and cover its expenses with reduced guest capacity.

This year, Hutchinson is confident that with social distancing, sanitation and an outdoor setting, the park will be able to run at full capacity.

“We feel like we have a good environment – we have had a year to learn from the parks that were open,” Hutchinson said. “The beaches and Old Orchard Beach have always been a draw – that gets people here, and Funtown has become a traditional thing for families. When they are up on vacation, the park is absolutely one of the things they are going to do one of the days.”

Even hotels still under construction are getting booked. The Canopy Hilton on Commercial Street in Portland is expected to open in May and already has guests making reservations for the summer, said Brandon Hussey, director of sales and marketing for the developer, Fathom Companies. Rates can run up to $499 a night for a weekend in the summer, he said.

“It was really surprising to me how much stronger the summer was last year than people expected,” Hussey said. “That gave us some hope that this summer will be really strong.”

Rented vacation homes, which had a booming year after a spring lull last year, are filling up fast.

Maine Seacoast Rentals has booked nearly all of its 100 rental homes around Biddeford for June through September, agent Brianne Emhiser said.

“I think my boss pulled the numbers – it is our best season in three years in terms of how much we’ve rented and how much money we’ve taken in,” Emhiser said.

Like last year, many guests want a place to themselves, where they can gather with family or friends they haven’t seen and limit the regular interaction they’d have with strangers in a hotel lobby, elevator or restaurant.

At the pace it is booking, Jean Knapp Rentals is on track to fill up all its 40 rentals for the season by April, Rental Manager Ana Ghita said. That timeline is consistent with an ordinary year, she added.

The most common questions she fields are about local restrictions, such as whether there is a limit on the number of people allowed on the beach at one time – there isn’t. “I think everyone is tired and they need a break, they need summer back,” Ghita said. “As long as everyone makes sure they respect CDC guidelines, we are good to have a great summer.”

A 66 percent increase in reservations for Maine State Park campsites compared with the same time last year illustrates the enduring popularity of getting outdoors. Out-of-state reservations are up 23 percent, while in-state reservations are up a whopping 91 percent. The reservation increase is massive, but not surprising given the record-breaking year Maine State Parks had in 2020, spokesman Jim Britt said.

“Already popular Maine State Park campgrounds and day-use areas became even more so during the pandemic,” Britt said via email. “Maine is an outdoors destination, and people crave getting outside for fresh air and sunshine, swimming, hiking and exploring more of Maine.”

Tops’l Farm, an upscale outdoor destination in Waldoboro, already has all its group dates booked, owner Sarah Pike said. The business could easily be fully reserved this year, but Pike wanted to keep some dates open for travelers to book overnight getaways when its reservation system goes online next week.

Even with loosened restrictions, Pike plans to change little of the farm’s virus protocols from last year. The property offers guests what they want: a safe, quiet place in the woods.

“We are moving ahead with a plan that would have been safe last season,” Pike said. “The challenge will be the collective fatigue with it all, the extra effort it takes – and will take – this season,” she added. “There are still safety protocols to abide by, (and) I actually think his season is going to take more diligence on our part and our guests’ part.”

Although everything now points to a rebound in tourism from 2020, the state still plans an aggressive marketing campaign starting this April in markets from Virginia up through the Northeast.

Matt Lewis, CEO of HospitalityMaine, the state’s restaurant and lodging trade group, thinks the state can’t just expect people to come back despite all its attractive qualities.

“I don’t think we should rest on our laurels,” Lewis said. “We have to work to make to make sure we get that business. I think we are in a good position, but we don’t want to take that business for granted.”

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