Tourism visits, spending and jobs in Maine sank in 2020 as pandemic restrictions shut down travel to perennial summer locations, but a late summer recovery, and in-state travel and spending prevented the season from being a total loss.

Visitation to Maine dropped by about 27 percent compared with the year before to roughly 12 million day and overnight visitors, the Maine Office of Tourism estimated. The drop is considerable, considering Maine’s streak of record-breaking tourism years, but better than the doomsday scenario predicted in the pandemic’s early days.

Total spending on restaurants, lodging, shopping and other activities fell by the same proportion as visitation, to about $4.8 billion. The total economic impact including earnings and taxes also fell, to about $9 billion from more than $12 billion the year before.

Canadian tourists, who usually make up a significant proportion of the state’s summer visitors, were noticeably absent last year because the border was – and remains – closed to nonessential travel.

Despite the bruising experience last year, Maine attracted first-time visitors, tourists went to rarely visited rural areas and the state developed a reputation as a safe destination with plenty of uncrowded open space – an ideal environment for pandemic vacationing.

That experience, plus improving vaccination rates and relaxed travel and business restrictions, bode well for the summer tourism season ahead, Gov. Janet Mills said in remarks to business owners and industry representatives during the state’s annual tourism conference, held online Tuesday.

“Like every other state in the nation, Maine suffered severe economic consequences from this pandemic,” Mills told industry participants. “You committed to following public safety and health precautions and attended trainings to slow the spread of the virus and keep our visitors, staff and public safe. The innovation and ingenuity of this industry embodied the very essence of this state.”

Most of last summer, nonessential travelers from other states were required to have a negative COVID-19 test no more than 72 hours before arriving or quarantine while in the state. Those restrictions were lifted for New England residents in March and for the entire country last week. Last year’s travel restrictions were fiercely opposed by some lodging and tourism establishments that worried limiting visitors would doom their businesses.

Occupancy restrictions will go up to 75 percent indoors and 100 percent outside in late May, although the required six-foot distancing will limit full capacity at restaurants and other establishments.

“Our reputation as a safe state depends on preventing the spread of the virus,” Mills said. “I ask for your continuing cooperation and partnership to keep us safe.”

In the early days of the pandemic, the Maine Office of Tourism switched gears, targeting the state’s residents to “revisit Maine” once businesses reopened and people felt more comfortable traveling within the state. As travel increased and some states were exempted, the state’s marketing campaign expanded to advertise Maine as a safe destination.

That marketing may have worked for some travelers – about one in six visitors had never come to the state before.

“We believe that is because Maine was perceived as a safe destination,” said Joseph St. Germain, partner at Downs and St. Germain Research, a Tallahassee, Florida, firm contracted by the Maine’s tourism office for annual tourism estimates.

Repeat visitors, as in other years, made up a large share of the total. About 40 percent of visitors had come to Maine more than 10 times, an unsurprising proportion given the number of second homes in the state.

Visitors prized Maine’s natural scenery, peace and quiet, and authenticity of local communities and businesses, St. Germain said. Those qualities drove stunning rates of possible return visitors. Roughly 98 percent of those surveyed by the firm said they would recommend a visit to Maine to a friend or family member, and 97 percent said they would return for a future visit.

“We ask this question in a lot of different states and regions in the nation, and we rarely see that number this high,” St. Germain said. “I think this is testimony not only to the product you have in Maine, but also that it is the people here that make people want to come back.”

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