Maine Tourism Faces ‘Challenging Season’
On Friday (Jan. 2), the first business day of the new year, the management staff of Hermit Island Campground near Phippsburg, Maine, began its annual tradition of sifting through a pile of reservation requests that had been collecting by mail for weeks.
Similar cold weather projects face campground owners all across the state as they begin booking sites for the warmer months on the horizon. The process offers an early – albeit unscientific – sign of how Maine’s crucial summer tourism season will pan out, according to the Brunswick (Maine) Times Record.
With the state and national economies still staggering, a rebound in summer traffic could bring a much-needed injection of spending money to local markets. But for Hermit Island, the first sign of summer Friday was lukewarm.
“Numbers are down, so far,” said Nick Sewall, a managing partner in the popular Phippsburg campground. “Historically, it’s a pretty good barometer. Nothing’s 100% sure, but it’s a pretty good indicator when people don’t have the money to send a deposit in or aren’t planning to come.
“If you’re worried about your job, you’re likely to stay home or go for a day trip,” he continued. “I think we’ll have less occupancy this year than we did last year. I think it’s already showing up on the Maine Turnpike and in tourism bureaus – there are fewer people coming in.”
Steve Lyons, marketing director for the Maine Office of Tourism, indeed acknowledged Friday that “It’ll be a challenging season with the economy the way it is, but I think people will still take their vacations.”
“(Tourists) may change their buying habits a little bit,” Lyons told The Times Record in a brief Friday evening telephone interview. “They may not buy quite as many souvenirs or they may buy one less meal at a restaurant. But we’re well positioned to have a good year, given our proximity to the population centers.”
Jan. 2 ritual
The initial mail call for Hermit Island Campground is a colorful affair, with reservation requests typically arriving in large, ornate envelopes, often fashioned from family photographs of past stays there or drawings of coastal Maine scenes. The requests come from as far away as Germany and Switzerland, although Sewall said most come from New England states.
To make the draw for sought-after dates and campsites as fair as possible, Sewall said his management team puts all the envelopes in a barrel, turns it over, reshuffles them by hand and then turns them in the barrel again.
Then the requests are plucked out, one by one, and dates and locations start getting booked up – entered first into a computer and then onto a chart that sprawls across the wall of the campground’s office in nearby Bath.
During the month of January, the staff considers mail requests for reservations of at least a week. In February, they start taking requests by telephone, and by April, they’re ready to start considering reservations of less than a week.
Richard Abare, executive director of the Maine Campgrounds Association (MCA), which is based in Lewiston, said he believes frugal vacationers will give campgrounds like Hermit Island a second look this year as the warm weather approaches and they begin planning trips.
“We know that these are tough times, and everyone will be looking for ways to save money, but they’re still going to need to go,” said Abare on Friday. “If 90% of the people have jobs and are working, when they get a chance they’ll want to get away and do something, and the best value for vacations is found in campgrounds.
“Camping is an outdoor family, inexpensive activity,” he continued. “We feel like we’re on the value side of recreation, and so we’re very positive that people will pull out the tent, dust off the sleeping bag and be coming to campgrounds. We’re looking for a good year. You can go for a week at a campground for less than a couple of nights at a hotel, and you take the whole family.”
Abare said that his organization has added an incentive this year: a Camp Maine Rewards Card. The promotional card costs just less than $30, he said, and is worth 10% off stays at most of the association’s 230 campground members. Additionally, said Abare, campers who use the card can get a third night for the price of two during the spring or fall.
Promotions like that, he said, would likely appeal mostly to people from Maine or nearby New England states.
“With the price of gas being a little better, we think folks are looking for vacations close to home, and we have seen – even without the dire economic situation that seems to be plaguing us right now – Mainers staying close to home and camping,” he said.