Tourism: A Growing Industry, a Growing Concern
It’s getting a little crazy, isn’t it? A year ago, “Bon Appetit,” the premier culinary magazine, named Portland its “Restaurant City of theYear.” “Fodor’s” the world-famous travel guide put Portland on its “Go List”for 2020 and “Lonely Planet” just listed Maine as one of the world’s “best places” to visit in the coming year as did "Travel & Leisure." If that were not enough "U.S. New and World Report" just called Maine one of the world's best honeymoon destinations! Though final numbers are not yet in, the state expected its 12 cruise ship ports to see nearly 700,000 visitors this past summer. And though studies suggest that cruise ship passengers often spend less than anticipated, it is still estimated that they will have contributed upwards of $30 million to the economy, especially in the top three destinations of Portland, Bar Harbor and Rockland. Even Eastport, with its pier connection to Campobello Island--home of the summer retreat of the Roosevelts--saw significant small cruise ship visits this year with its passengers spending time and money in the community’s business district. Other studies have indicated that many who initially visit Maine on passenger ships plan to make return visits. This is all part of the “new tourism” that Maine is witnessing. While good for Maine’s economy, this “new tourism” is not without its problems that planners need to help address.
It is becoming commonplace to find a growing number of small Maine downtowns clogged with people and traffic during the peak seasons for Maine tourism. Bar Harbor, with its access to Acadia National Park, sometimes appears to be overwhelmed with foot and car traffic and its physical infrastructure badly strained. Voters in town recently defeated a measure that would have enlarged its piers to accommodate more and bigger ships. Not all of Maine’s ports are on the EPA’s “no discharge” list which means that ship waste can be dumped directly into the ocean rather than using waste pumping stations. And those who work in the tourist sector increasingly find it extremely difficult to find housing accommodations in host communities thus forcing them to commute at ever farther distances from work. This, in its turn, puts additional pressure on “gateway communities” to provide affordable housing. The potential for communities to become overwhelmed by tourists has led some to consider caps and other limitations on visitors. Even Acadia National Park has been forced to implement rationing measures to reduce automobiles and visitors to maintain what is so special about it.
Much of this “new tourism” is situated on the coast of Maine. This is beginning to change. Millinocket, long in decline, is witnessing modest redevelopment as the gateway to the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. Long-delayed signage is finally being installed that will make it easier for visitors to access the area. Likewise, the growth in the “farm-to-plate” movement has seen new restaurants opening across the state, like the famous “Lost Kitchen” in Freedom. Investments made in Monson by the Libra Foundation aim to create a community of artists and artisans -- along with the town’s location astride the Appalachian trail—that will likely attract more tourists to the interior of the Maine. Overall, however, the potential for tourism in so much of interior Maine, with some of the state’s poorest counties, has never been adequately realized.
What roles might planners play in this evolving tourism landscape? Initially we must come to understand what the new tourism is about, what are its impacts and how might we anticipate the changes necessary to mediate and avoid problems. Second, planners ought to help communities to understand the somewhat ephemeral nature of tourism markets and trends. We have for too long lived with “boom and bust” situations. With sea- and ocean-level rise and other manifestations of climate change, planners should embrace new thinking in terms of the physical and human infrastructure that will ameliorate some of the worst consequences of tourism development. And while the new shiny object is the “new tourism,” planners should not abandon what is necessary to support much of “traditional tourism” tied as it is our historic, cultural and natural resources. Outdoor recreation remains an $8 billion-dollar economic driver that undergirds much of the new tourism and continues to employ many Mainers. The State has recently published a draft of its new State Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan (SCORP) and I doubt that many of us have paid attention to it and its implications for the communities and regions that we serve. Special attention ought to be paid to the fact that protecting and securing open space and farm and forest land resources are surely a part of any “smart growth” strategy for Maine communities. Finally, the needs of the work force for both the new and traditional tourisms must be front and center in our thinking.
Dr. Mark B. Lapping
Dr. Lapping is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at USM's Muskie School, where he taught classes in community planning for many years. Among his several books is the APA's "Small Town Planning Handbook.