Needed: a big push for Maine Woods tourism
(Aug 23): It’s the height of Maine’s summer tourist season and based on anecdotal information, things are not booming. This is not surprising considering soaring gas prices and consumers’ general sense of vulnerability. Yet another reason for Maine to get serious about energizing its tourism industry, especially in the North Woods where new economic engines are urgently needed.
Maine Woods tourism extends back beyond H.D. Thoreau’s mid-19th century sojourns. In its heyday a century ago, the Moosehead Lake region alone had 20 hotels accessed by three rail lines. Although the Great Depression and automobile touring ended that golden age, post-World War II decades were marked by renewed tourism growth. Traditional outdoor adventures and hospitality services were supplemented by new attractions, such as alpine skiing, snowmobiling, white water rafting and fall “leaf peeping.”
Maine’s hinterland, despite its storied history and natural beauty, shows numerous signs of economic and community distress. Compared to the state’s relatively prosperous southern and coastal counties, the six “rim counties” (Oxford, Franklin, Somerset, Piscataquis, Aroostook and Washington) suffer from persistent low incomes, high poverty rates, high unemployment, youth out-migration and rapidly aging populations.
One challenge is to frame strategies for economic sectors with the greatest potential to lead rural Maine toward sustainable prosperity. Tourism has that potential. It directly generates over 10 percent of rim county employment and 8 percent of income. Including multiplier effects, tourism accounts for one in seven rim county jobs.
With a few exceptions, rural Maine’s natural attractions and gateway towns have underutilized supply capacity. On the demand side, our nature, culture and heritage have the potential to attract significantly more visitors, especially high spending experiential tourists. However, sustainable tourism growth will not happen automatically through “the magic of the market.”
Responding to rural Maine’s serious economic challenges, Gov. Baldacci and the Legislature have accorded tourism unprecedented priority in the loose collection of programs that pass for a rural development policy.
Pursuing a “world-class” reputation, the state has recently launched numerous tourism ventures, including the Maine Nature Tourism Initiative and a university Center for Tourism Research and Outreach.
The private and nonprofit sectors, with substantial state support, have also been innovating. Theme-based recreational trails have proliferated in rural Maine, for instance the Kennebec-Chaudière International Heritage Corridor, the Maine Birding Trail, the 180-mile Maine Huts and Trails, the Maine Fiber Arts Trail, the Piscataquis Waterfall Trail, the Maine Ice Age Trail and the fast-growing all-terrain vehicle trail network.
Investments in downtown revitalization, resort upgrades and new resorts will help brand the Maine Woods as an amenity rich destination.
Although these ventures show promise, most are piecemeal, geographically scattered and too small to create the “buzz” of a world-class destination. In this era of Internet bookings, the Maine Woods competes for visitors not only with nearby rivals, like the Adirondacks and White Mountains, but also with world-renowned international destinations like the Canadian Rockies. Furthermore, Maine’s cultural and heritage attractions are modest compared with competing Northeast destinations, such as the Hudson and Lake Champlain valleys. In sum, the Maine Woods destination may have world-class potential, but we’re not there yet. The region must re-invent itself as a destination and re-conceive its brand image to thrive in 21st century conditions.
We need a “big push” — with three core components — if tourism is to play a lead role in revitalizing Maine’s rural economy and communities. First, our dispersed mountains, lakes, wild rivers, trails and other natural attractions must be more effectively woven together into a Maine Woods whole, renowned for outstanding and varied recreational experiences. Second, cultural and heritage amenities must be upgraded, networked and integrated with outdoor recreation to shape exciting itineraries for travelers seeking a rich and varied experience. Third, tourism service quality needs to reach the standard of excellence demanded by quality conscious tour arrangers and travelers. Service excellence is also the key to creating more livable wage tourism jobs. At present, fewer than half of tourism jobs pay a livable wage or offer health benefits. Yet we know quality tourism jobs are possible, because our best practice guide services, outfitters, sporting camps, hotels and restaurants already offer them. The foundation of a win-win strategy, then, is top quality service, leading both to greater profitability and better employee compensation and satisfaction.
The 10-million-acre Maine Woods is the largest contiguous forest east of the Mississippi. It contains regionally and nationally recognized destinations: the northern terminus of the Appalachian Trail on Mt. Katahdin, the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, Rangeley and Moosehead Lakes, and the 1,500-mile ITS snowmobile trail network. The area of protected lands has grown to over 1.5 million acres. Building on these special assets, we can shape a world-class Maine Woods destination where the whole is greater than the sum of its many not quite world-class parts.
David Vail teaches economics and environmental studies at Bowdoin College and is a Maine Center for Economic Policy board member. He recently advised the Governor’s Council on Maine’s Quality of Place and serves on the advisory committee to the University of Maine’s Center for Tourism Research and Outreach. To learn more about tourism strategy for rural prosperity, visit the MECEP website at mecep.org.
Growing up on a Massachusetts farm, I moved a lot of rocks as my family cleared fields for crops. Back in the 1950’s many folks in town laughed at my grandmother’s prediction, “ Someday, people will pay good money for these stones”. She was right, so today we see expensive pallets of lichen encrusted field stones stacked through the New England countryside as residents pay to have these genuine stones nearby.
In David Vail’s Guest Column “ Needed: a big push for Maine Woods tourism”, Mr. Vail is encouraging us to realize that “Investments in downtown revitalization, resort upgrades and new resorts will help brand the Maine Woods as an amenity rich destination”.
Greenville is considered the gateway to the Maine Woods. I am still floored when I drive down Indian Hill approaching town where there stands an deteriorating, empty McDonald’s franchise that gave it up years ago after there wasn’t enough business to sustain it. I’m not convinced that now is the time to put more “ world class amenities” into the North Woods in an effort to “…attract significantly more visitors, especially high-spending experiential tourists”.
I live here a few miles away from Route 1 where there are ample resorts, and more than one tastefully vitalized downtown. I shudder to think of how my own wilderness experience would be seriously degraded if we merely transplant this whole deal up into the North Woods.
Believe it or not , there are people out here who deeply crave a true wilderness experience, desiring a few precious days to canoe, walk, or snowshoe in undeveloped nature and lay our bodies down to rest beside waterfalls, brooks, or on mountaintops. It is getting difficult to even find these types of experiences even in the Maine Woods, as snowmobiles, ATVs, and motor boats fill our waterways and paths, thawed or flowing. Any such plan that Mr. Vail, or any others propose needs to recognize that there are people like me out there, who would prefer to swat away at black flies and mosquitoes and labor up and down the gut busting mountains on the Appalachian Trail in Western Maine rather than stroll along the recently cut over lowlands on the 180-mile Maine Huts and Trails corridor. I want to sleep out in the forest in my little tent, and not in an upgraded version of an Appalachian Mountain Club hut, where I can hope to climb to to the last third high bunk and get my supper and breakfast to me for just $96.12 a night ( current rates for one person AMC bunk space on weekends).
Mr. Vail compares Maine’s assets to those of the Canadian Rockies and Norway’s fjord country. I personally think that is stretching it. To some, Mt. Katahdin’s majesty may approach or even equal the grandeur of those two destinations. Thankfully, we are blessed by the vision of Percival Baxter, whose strings-attached gift of Baxter State Park ensures that no paved roads will be established to allow us to place one one of these “new resorts” up on the edge of the Tableland.
Mr. Vail, please think of folks like me when you draft the final stages of just what this “big push” will look like . I know I won’t be able to afford those rates. Americans, and many wealthy Europeans , want it all and want it right now, but if we can somehow leave a few of those ancient stones unturned, people will someday pay good money to just stand on them.