A year after the quietest summer in living memory, tourism in Maine has surged back with a vengeance, despite rampant understaffing, long periods of rain and rising coronavirus infections.

At The Clam Shack, a seafood place in the epicenter of Kennebunk’s tourist-friendly village, customers line up down the street all day every day, regardless of weather, with many waiting to order lobster rolls that hover around $30 a pop. Sometimes, owner Steve Kingston has to shut down at 8 p.m. sharp even if customers are still waiting, just to give his staff a break.

“It’s been crazy. We’ve been very busy, significantly busier than last year,” Kingston said. “We’re actually doing better than 2019. It’s good stuff.”

Business has been intense because Kingston, unlike many restaurant operators in the Kennebunks, has enough staff to stay open seven days a week. Many other eateries are closed at least one or two days a week, leading frustrated, hungry customers to his doorstep.

“We have gotten flack for other places being closed,” Kingston said. “Don’t get mad at me because you came to Kennebunkport for the day and couldn’t get anything.”

A long line of people wait outside The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport on Friday. Owner Steve Kingston says that the business has had a record-breaking year with long lines regularly stretching down the sidewalk from its take out window. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

The Clam Shack is indicative of how fast Maine’s tourism industry bounced back after the pandemic slump last year. Travel restrictions that kept many out-of-staters away in 2020 did not ease until July. Coronavirus precautions limited the number of guests, diners in establishments and the kind of activities they could do. The result was a 27 percent decline in visitors and revenue, leaving employers to rely on federal aid to make ends meet.

This year is the mirror opposite. There are no travel restrictions or required precautions and swarms of travelers are ready to get out and spend money. Parks at beaches, lakes and mountains are packed. There are more out-of-state vehicles choking the Maine Turnpike this year than in 2019.

Acadia National Park, a bucket-list destination in Maine, had more than 1.9 million visitors in the first seven months of the year, 10 percent above the average visitor total for the same period between 2015-2019. 

“We are on course to set a visitation record by far,” said acting public information officer John Kelly. “We are experiencing extreme congestion at the most popular destinations and the most popular times.”

Jack Kozdron of Wallington, NJ, straps on his bicycle helmet as a tour group from Maine Brews Cruise leaves Maine Mead Works on Wednesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Acadia’s experience follows a national trend of travelers choosing outdoor destinations over major cities or other crowded places.

Even the rain this summer – July was one of the rainiest months on record – hasn’t kept visitors away. For Acadia, it’s even made things worse, because as soon as the sun comes out crowds surge into the park to take advantage.

“It is literally the perfect storm in the negative sense,” Kelly said. “When we have a couple days of rain, and the next day is a beautiful summer day, there is a huge influx of people.”

Like almost every other tourist destination in Maine, Acadia doesn’t have enough staff. Federal hiring standards means it can’t just hire anyone off the street, and even if it could, the lack of local housing means they might have nowhere to stay. Across the board, the park has empty jobs, such as maintenance workers, campground rangers and seasonal laborers.

“We were struggling with an ability to hire because we couldn’t provide housing,” Kelly said. “We don’t have the capacity that we want but we are operating the best we can with what we have.”

Despite the headaches, visitors bring in cash. If early revenue records are any indication, the state’s tourism industry is on track to have a banner year, even if it doesn’t totally erase last year’s losses.

Agata Kozdron of Wallington, NJ, samples mead from Maine Mead Works during a Maine Brews Cruise bicycle tour in Portland on Wednesday. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Spending at Maine hotels and restaurants topped $1.8 billion in the first six months of the year, according to state revenue records, 5 percent more than at the same time in 2019, a record-breaking year for tourism spending.

Hotels, inns and rental homes are full, too. Eighty-seven percent of Portland hotel rooms were booked in July, two points higher than in 2019, and the average revenue per room soared to $196 per room, about $30 higher than two years before, according to STR, a global hospitality data and analytics company.

Statewide, hotel occupancy in July hovered at 85 percent, easily the highest rate in New England and 14 points more than the U.S. average. Coastal hotspots, including Cumberland, York, Hancock and Knox counties, had hotel occupancy between 84-87 percent, STR reported.

“The whole region has seen a huge increase, not an increase that makes up for last year’s decrease, but we’re able to collect some of that back,” said Ramsey Lafayette, Regional Manager for Lafayette Hotels. The company owns 30 properties in some of Maine’s hottest coastal towns including Ogunquit, Old Orchard Beach and Bar Harbor.

A long line of people wait outside The Clam Shack in Kennebunkport on Friday. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“It’s been a tough transition from zero to 60 mph, without the same number of people working as we might have in a different year. It’s been pretty rough, I can’t lie,” Lafayette said. The hotels avoided having to close any rooms because of their labor issues, but have limited restaurant hours.

A labor crunch isn’t just a Maine problem, but it poses particular issues. First, guests might have a bad experience if they have to wait long for a table or feel they aren’t getting the right customer service. Second, restricting hours and services means businesses forgo earnings.

“What I worry about is some of the revenue we are leaving on the table because businesses are not able to serve the amount of people they might because of staff limitations,” said Tony Cameron, CEO of the Maine Tourism Association.

“This isn’t just a Maine problem, it is a national problem,” Cameron added. “But it hurts us in the fact that tourism is such a big industry in the state of Maine and we rely on outside money to come in and be a backbone of our economy.”

In Portland, Maine Brews Cruise tour company is back in the swing of things after the pandemic disrupted its 2020 season. But its business model looks different now, General Manager Don Littlefield said.

Cars and people fill Dock Square in Kennebunkport on Friday. With many people not taking vacations abroad, Maine has seen an increase in summer tourism. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Instead of buses, the company offers mostly biking and walking tours to craft beverage companies around Greater Portland. That’s meant smaller tours and its customer numbers are way down. So far this year, the company has had about 2,000 guests; before the pandemic it toured up to 7,000 people a year.

Long periods of rain this summer also forced it to cancel some tours, cutting into the company’s business.

“You can bike in a drizzle, but it is not a lot of fun in a rainstorm,” Littlefield said. “You can’t control that, but it has dampened the spirit of some of our guests to not be able to fully explore the state as they wish.”

The recovery Littlefield’s company has made could erode again if the spike in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths across the country continues. Some groups have canceled the tours they booked for September and if there are new restrictions on indoor drinking and dining, the tour company would likely have to go back into hibernation for the winter, he said.

Overall though, Littlefield said the season has been a success. Guests are having fun and lots of new people were introduced to Maine this year. He’s had customers from 48 states, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico.

“What that says to me is leisure travelers are more comfortable getting on a plane,” Littlefield said. “And they are getting on a plane to Portland, Maine because it is perceived as rural, it is perceived as safe.

“Maine shows off well. Because we are attractive to a lot of first time travelers they are falling in love with our state and they tell me they will be back.”

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