Tourism in Portland has fluctuated over the last few years in comparison to the state’s overall upward trend. Now a promotional organization for the greater Portland region wants to change that with a new hotel guest fee that would fund more marketing.

Maine’s tourism numbers climbed from 27.9 million visitors in 2012 to 37.4 million in 2019, but greater Portland’s numbers see-sawed between 5.3 million and 6 million during the same period, according to Visit Portland President and CEO Lynn Tillotson.

Courtyard Portland Downtown/Waterfront on Commercial Street is one of the hotels that is supportive of a Tourism Improvement District, which would assess guests an additional fee that would then be used for hotel marketing, group sales and promotions. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

“Our visitation in Greater Portland is not seeing an increase,” Tillotson said. “We are seeing this little up and down thing. We should be seeing a steady increase as it correlates to the state’s increase.”

Tillotson hopes Portland can become the first municipality in the state to establish a Tourism Improvement District to provide a funding stream to better market the area as a year-round travel destination. Guests at participating hotels would pay an additional 2% of their total bill to the district, which in turn would be used for group sales, marketing, promotion and other efforts to increase room occupancy and the amount of money tourists are spending in the area.

An estimated $2.1 million per year could be raised through the district, Tillotson said, and that would go a long way towards helping Visit Portland market the area as a travel destination. Many other marketing organizations like Visit Portland are funded through local option sales tax, which Maine does not have. Instead Visit Portland’s promotion efforts are funded through membership. Prior to the pandemic, the organization was operating on a close to $1 million budget, but the budget is now closer to $439,000. In comparison, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority that markets Asheville, North Carolina, a market similar to Portland, has a $20 million budget, funded through a room occupancy tax.

While the tourism numbers in the city have seesawed over the years, the hotel room inventory in Portland had skyrocketed. Since 1980, the number of hotel rooms in the city has increased 319%, from 1,026 to 3,574.

A Tourism Improvement District, Tillotson said, is a “effective and proven solution for tourism and marketing funding.”

Aaron Marks, general manager of the Courtyard Portland Downtown/Waterfront, thinks forming the district is a good idea to help hotels in the area, especially the smaller ones.

“I think it is a great way for us to pool together and will be a benefit for the region,” he said.

Project consultant Tiffany Gallagher of Civitas Advisors said the popularity of the districts is picking up across the county. Right now there are 190 districts in 17 states, but the closest to Maine is in Newport, Rhode Island. There are discussions in 18 other states, including Massachusetts and New York, to establish new districts.

The goal, Gallagher said, is the establish the Portland’s district by late summer or early fall, after receiving City Council review and approval.

“If we can more through the process in the summer, ideally the district could be collecting in the fall and begin spending that money to benefit the hotels,” she said.

The idea, according to Visit Portland, has the support of many of the hotels in the city, including the Press Hotel,  Canopy by Hilton, Hyatt Place Portland, Hilton Garden Inn Waterfront,  Clarion Hotel, Courtyard Portland Downtown/Waterfront, Hilton Garden Inn Airport, Westin Portland Harborview, LaQuinta, Ramada Inn, Residence Inn Portland Downtown, Portland Harbor Hotel and Cambria Hotel.

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