Since the COVID-19 pandemic ripped around the globe, forcing people to stay at home, cutting off traditional outlets for expenditure and creating never-before-seen levels of pent-up consumer demand, visitors have been returning to Maine with cash to burn.

Last year, slightly fewer tourists came to the state than in 2022 (15.3 million versus 15.9 million), but these visitors spent more money ($9.1 million versus $8.6 billion).

As we approach the official start of peak summer season, there’s no reason to expect that this year will be any different – and people in the industry are feeling optimistic.

According to the Maine Office of Tourism, in the pandemic’s second year, 2021, 15.6 million visitors came to the state and spent $7.8 billion, an increase on 12.1 million in 2020. In 2019, visitors numbered 16.5 million, and the spending then, a record at the time, was $6.5 billion.

The 2020 performance was better than feared; Maine was “perceived as a safe destination,” as one travel agent put it at the time.

Maine has also long been the beneficiary of a trend analysts now sometimes call “slow travel,” where visitors select their destination with longer and more involved stays in mind – stays that are then more lucrative for local economies. A research firm hired by the state last year referred to visitors’ tendency to “immerse” themselves in Maine, unlike in other U.S. hot spots. Mainers who have for years been familiar with the clockwork-like influx of “summer people” probably didn’t need to read the report.


Last summer’s rain and fog were of no help to the hospitality industry, and particularly hard on visitor number at campsites and to national parks – Acadia National Park chief among them – where decisions and commitments are heavily contingent on the forecast.

Standing more squarely in the way of a full recovery to prepandemic health than drizzle and drear, however, is the now-chronic labor shortage.

According to the Office of Tourism, more than 70% of Maine businesses entered the summer season understaffed last year. The challenges this creates – and the economic opportunity it forces Maine to pass up – cannot be overstated.

Unlike the weather, the labor market is something that can be directly influenced, and elements of it fall within our control. Maine Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King have together pushed the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Labor for an increase in the number of H-2B visas (temporary nonagricultural worker visas, relied on when there are not enough American workers to fill open positions).

Earlier this month, Sen. Collins seized the opportunity to renew the appeal at a Q&A with the acting secretary of the Department of Labor, Julie Su. “Those (H-2Bs) are absolutely critical in my state, where 10-times the state’s population visits Maine,” Collins said.

The additional 64,716 H-2B visas sought should be made available. This is no-brainer stuff.


Elsewhere and in a similar spirit, sensible reform of asylum seeker work authorization can also make life easier for embattled employers in the hospitality industry. Again, a member of Maine’s congressional delegation is pushing hard for this at the federal level. Writing in the Press Herald last week, Rep. Chellie Pingree accused the government of “standing in the way of a perfect marriage between willing workers and employers eager to hire.”

In her op-ed, Pingree offered the example of the Saco-based seafood company Luke’s Lobster, which, “operating at around 80% of its typical summer staffing capacity and only around 50% currently … is buying, processing and selling less lobster than previous years.”

The company says that a number of would-be employees waited so long for their work authorization that they left the U.S. for Canada. This hobbling, red-tape-ridden reality simply cannot stand; Pingree’s bipartisan Asylum Seeker Work Authorization Act, which would reduce the wait time for eligibility from 180 days to 30 days, deserves to be passed with robust support.

Even if you’re not a lobster slinger, a T-shirt slinger, a hotelier or a server, you might still find cause to support better conditions for the state’s hospitality industry (or look beyond the long lines for lunch and the dreaded traffic jams). Earlier this year, the Maine Office of Tourism broke down last year’s numbers in terms the average taxpayer might feel moved by. All told, 2023’s tourists kicked $16.4 billion into Maine’s economy, lowering taxes for every Maine household by $2,467.

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