April 07, 2020

Thoreau’s world-class Maine

We recently got welcome news that Maine tourism rebounded in 2005 from a four-year slump. But tourist visits have declined to Maine’s premier natural attractions, including Baxter State Park, the Allagash Wilderness Waterway and our state parks. A Nature Conservancy study shows a close link between waning participation in outdoor recreation and Americans’ growing “infatuation with digital media.”

These ominous trends are coupled with powerful forces outside Maine’s control: baby boomer demographics, rising fuel prices, climate (snowless winters?) and a national economic slowdown.

These forces will affect tourism in Bangor and Bar Harbor, but their impacts will be more severe in Maine’s economically distressed “rim counties,” from Oxford in the west to Aroostook in the north and Washington downeast. While Maine’s coastal economy has diversified and thrived, the rim counties suffer on-going stagnation or decline in core resource and manufacturing sectors. The future vitality of their economies and communities will depend heavily on tourism.

A goal of the new Maine Nature Tourism Initiative “is to provide Maine visitors with … opportunities to experience the state’s world-class natural, historical, and cultural resources.” Sadly, the rim counties’ current package of natural and cultural attractions does not meet world-class standards, as judged by the market. This is underscored by declining visits to Baxter and the Allagash.

The problem is not lack of effort. We’ve see a host of rim-county initiatives. Here are some examples:

. The Appalachian Mountain Club is developing a system of trails and sporting camps in the 100 Mile Wilderness.

. No less than four major resorts are being planned, at Saddleback Mountain, Moosehead Lake, Brownville, and Millinocket Lake.

. The Maine Mountain Heritage Network is upgrading and connecting cultural and heritage attractions.

. The Maine Winter Sports Center’s outstanding Aroostook County facilities were selected for the 2006 Olympic biathlon trials.

The problem is that these are piecemeal ventures, narrow in scope. They will help us maintain market share with regional competitors like the Adirondacks and White Mountains. But in this era of Internet trip planning and flights to remote places, our competition extends to renowned destinations like the Colorado Rockies and Norway’s fjord country.

I believe Maine’s rim counties have a shot at luring a lot more tourists, especially the growing “experiential tourist” cohort, who seek variety, demand quality, and spend freely. We can also entice more Mainers to vacation at home. Success might mean a quarter million more overnight visitors (just 1% of the coast’s summer invasion), spending roughly $200 million and supporting 4000 jobs. However, I believe getting from “heyah to theyah” requires three ambitious state commitments – backed by top notch branding and marketing.

“The Great Maine Woods” recreation area. We need a bold vision and recreation master plan for northern Maine’s “green infrastructure”: nearly three million acres currently under public and trust ownership or conservation easement.

The challenge is to weave prime Maine Woods attractions- from Moosehead Lake to Grand Lake Stream, Screw Augur Falls to Gulf Hagas, and the Mahoussocs to Mt. Katahdin – into a highly visible destination. Creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts requires investing in infrastructure (scenic byways, trails, signage), programs (guiding, interpretation, native crafts, performance) and convenient transportation to and through the Maine Woods. Launching New England’s first certified ecotourism quality label could also put the region on the map with environmentally conscious tourists from around the world.

The Great Maine Woods would be marketed as the inland half of a “twin parks” destination, paired with Acadia. Bangor, with its international airport, northern rail links, and its own tourism renaissance, would be the hub.

A Maine Woods National Heritage Area. The rim counties’ natural assets are complemented by fascinating 19th century towns, a blend of Native, Franco and Anglo-American traditions, echoes of H. D. Thoreau, and lively contemporary arts and crafts. We have not yet found a potent way to frame these assets for prospective tourists. A federally designated Maine Woods National Heritage Area could do just that. It would bring several million federal dollars to support heritage projects and, more importantly, ratchet up the region’s visibility through association with the National Park Service’s world famous brand. This proposal has encountered resistance, and our congressional delegation must educate skeptics: NHA designation entails no federal ownership or regulation.

World-class services and quality jobs. A world-class destination is built on outstanding service quality, from outfitting to historic interpretation to dining. The state’s challenge is to create and deliver entrepreneurial outreach programs to move hundreds of small tourism businesses closer to the world-class standards of our best practice firms.

We can simultaneously contribute to the Legislature’s goal of more livable wage jobs through a “win -win” strategy: raising profits by training and motivating tourism’s frontline employees more effectively.

This strategy sounds ambitious, but “business as usual” is a recipe for decline in rim county tourism.

David Vail teaches economics at Bowdoin College and directs Maine Center for Economic Policy’s project, “Spreading Prosperity to All of Maine.”

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