June 27, 2022

Drawing tourists Down East

The following is excerpted from the fall 2000 Maine Policy Review, a publication of the Margaret Chase Smith Center at the University of Maine.


Heritage,” or “cultural,” tourism is so nebulous a phrase, it may be better to suggest an exercise in lieu of a definition. Drive all the way Down East through Washington County and take the bridge at Lubec over to Canada. Stop for a moment at the New Brunswick tourist welcome station, where you will find stacks of intelligent and attractively designed guide books to the area’s cultural and environmental amenities, then continue along the well-marked roads to Campobello and the Roosevelt cottage. Maybe have lunch at the woodsy nearby inn.

Then turn around and head back to Maine. You will pass through the scenic little fishing village of Lubec. Except for a handful of bed and breakfasts and a one-room museum (devoted to the area’s traditional and now largely vanished sardine industry), there won’t be much to detain you. There is a tinge of sadness to the place, for the economic boom that much of the rest of America has been enjoying has not reached this far corner of Maine. Unless you happen to know someone who lives there and can “interpret” the town for you, Lubec may seem like one more place you passed through on the way to somewhere else. …

Perhaps we can gain further clarity by saying what cultural tourism is not. It isn’t just recreation (however enjoyable it may prove). It isn’t outlet shopping (though a good gift shop and bookstore can prolong the memory of the visit). It isn’t looking at much-photographed scenery (though it involves an informed appreciation of the landscape). It isn’t escapism (though it can lift the visitor out of the humdrum and every day). I would define it as travel whose purpose is to experience some human aspect of the country that cannot be found anywhere else. This may be as dramatic as Mount Rushmore, or as unassuming as a 19th-century Acadian farmhouse.

In a culture whose favored venues-the mall, the fast-food restaurant, the designer clothing store, the multi-plex cinema-are virtually identical from Ellsworth to Albuquerque, this is a kind of travel that is going to have more and more appeal. …

However you define the phenomenon, cultural tourism is big business. According to industry statistics, by 2010 tourism in general will be the world’s largest industry. It already is the second largest industry in Maine and has the potential to be the first; it currently generates more than $200 million a year in state and local tax revenues. Domestic travelers to Maine spend over $3 billion each year on food, lodging, and leisure activities, in the course of more than 8 million overnight trips into the state.

Cultural tourism is one of the fastest-growing sectors of this industry, attracting visitors who tend to stay longer, spend more, and travel in the off-season. They are better-educated, more affluent, and tend to be older, and they spend an average of $62 a day more than other travelers. Along with seasonal residents, they form a major audience for Maine’s 1,600 arts organizations, and are a mainstay of its historic houses and museums. According to an economic impact study made at Northeastern University, in 1995-96 the state’s cultural institutions counted 6,832,330 admissions to events (about 5.5 times the state’s population), about a third of them by non-state residents; these organizations had a total economic impact of $146.6 million, including indirect and induced spending. …

Based on what is happening elsewhere in Maine, here are eight suggestions for what Washington County could do over the next five years to tap into this new cultural tourist economy:

1) Join forces with Hancock County in a regional Down East cultural tourism alliance. The idea is not to let Mount Desert Island siphon off all the visitors and their money; persuade them instead that mainland Hancock and relatively unspoiled Washington counties are “the real Maine.” This will require a public-private partnership, with the partners including not only commercial tourism providers, but also local historical societies and museums and representatives of local industry, such as aquaculture, lumbering and blueberry production.

2) Take more aggressive steps to attract and promote a tourism infrastructure – inns, restaurants, up-market gift shops. This probably means persuading a major resort facility to come in. Easier said than done, I know, but there are important lessons to be learned from Nova Scotia’s success (a hint: German tourists).

3) Combine cultural tourism with the industry’s other big new success story – ecotourism. The desire to see uncommon landscapes and study wildlife, on sea or land, is going to fuel the new “grand tour” of an increasingly environmentally conscious traveling public -aging baby boomers with money to spend.

4) Market Washington County not just as a destination, but as the gateway to the Maritimes. On a foggy day on the Eastport waterfront, it is easy to feel you are on the very edge of the world. When the sun comes out, you see a lot of Canada a short sail away. As New Brunswick becomes more and more popular with Americans bored with over-crowded national parks and strip motels (the exchange rate doesn’t hurt, either), there must be a way to persuade them to linger on the United States side, coming or going. … Be shameless, in other words, in piggybacking on Canada’s tourism promotion.

5) Find someone to write a new book about Washington County. Look what John Berendt did for Savannah’s economy with his bestseller “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Meanwhile, everyone should read Lura Beam’s classic “A Maine Hamlet,” recently republished in paperback.

6) Make the 2004 celebration of Champlain’s St. Croix colony not just an international but a statewide event. Involve the state’s major museums and schools in the project.

7) Make sure Washington County plays a part in the campaign to reauthorize the $3.2 million New Century Community Grants program, which the Legislature passed in 1999. The sum was modest, considering that it has to be spread across the state, but the link between economic revitalization and cultural preservation was finally officially recognized. After all, if the cultural infrastructure is allowed to deteriorate, what will cultural tourists have to see? We need to be more “Canadian” in recognizing the role of state government in such efforts.

8) Don’t mess it all up in the process. Relatively unspoiled, Washington County includes some of the most beautiful landscapes on the Atlantic coast, and that ultimately is what people will travel far to enjoy.

Charles Calhoun lives in Portland. He is the author of Maine, a cultural guide in the Compass American Guide series (Fodor/Random House), and of the forthcoming biography,Longfellow:A Rediscovered Life (Beacon Press, Fall 2001).

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