Since we began writing travel columns earlier this year, Linda and I have noticed two things. The coast is booming. Traveler numbers are up. Tourists still love everything about the Maine coast, from lobsters to lighthouses.
Inland rural towns are dying, desperate for investment and visitors. There are definitely two Maines. But we’re not divided north to south. We’re divided east to west.
On top of that, most coastal visitors get no farther north than Bar Harbor, so Maine’s Downeast region more closely resembles inland tourist destinations that are down and out.
It is generally thought that this problem is caused by a lack of infrastructure and inadequate marketing. But the more Linda and I travel inland routes, the more impressed we are with the fabulous lodges, restaurants and activities that are available away from the coast.
So how do we get tourists into these areas?
We could start with the state’s marketing budget, a paltry $9 million per year. Quebec must spend that much every month. I get a ton of information from the Canadian provinces, and more targeted mailings from South Dakota than from Maine.
This year, tourism officials seemed pleased the governor and Legislature increased their marketing funds by about $500,000. I suppose in the cut-to-the-core environment prevalent these days in Augusta, they did well.
But that amount of money is still entirely inadequate if we want to expand our share of the tourism market.
The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife never replaced Bill Pierce, its marketing guy, after he left three years ago. And its marketing budget has just about been zeroed out.
After two decades of advocating for Maine sportsmen, I also can offer a few insights into the disastrous downturn in our hunting and fishing economy.
Let’s tackle hunting today. Losing our North Woods deer herd killed the hunting industry. The fish and wildlife department has created a new plan to rebuild the deer herd, and the Legislature greatly enhanced the plan; but no new money was put into it, and most people concede it will be more than a generation before we will see significant growth in the deer herd in the northern half of the state.
People in the deer hunting industry who could do so have already given up and left the state.
The Legislature’s Fish and Wildlife Committee unanimously rejected a bill that would have given nonresident deer hunters the thing they want most — the opportunity to hunt on the first day of Maine’s firearms season on deer. Currently, we selfishly keep that day for ourselves.
Then the committee left the moose lottery (scam) in place, allowing and encouraging nonresidents to buy unlimited numbers of chances, while cleaning up and making more fair the resident lottery by limiting each applicant to a single chance. The Legislature also increased the fee for the nonresident moose hunting permit while, of course, leaving the price of the resident permit alone.
Even when the Legislature increased moose permits by 650 at the last minute, it rejected a proposal to help the outdoor industry by selling 100 permits to guides and sporting camp owners. And it left the nonresident allocation to a stingy 10 percent of the total permits awarded.
That’s not exactly laying down the welcome mat for nonresident sportsmen.
We continue to see nonresident sportsmen as our cash cows; but we’ve got blinders on, because they’ve left our state is droves.
Since the moose lottery applications peaked in 1994 at 94,532, applications have decreased a stunning 50 percent. This year 49,887 hunters applied for permits, the second-lowest number of applicants in the 28-year history of the moose hunt. Last year, 49,729 applied, making 2010 the year with the lowest number of applicants in the lottery’s history.
Nonresident applicants have tracked downward at about the same percentage as resident applicants.
After raising their fees and rejecting their requests, the Legislature authorized a study to “examine the decline in the number of nonresident hunters.” All I can add to that is an exclamation mark! Instead of a task force, it should have gotten itself a mirror.
I do have high hopes for the task force, principally because my sister Edie Smith, Fish and Wildlife’s director of information and education, and Carolann Ouelette, director of the Maine Tourism Commission, are in charge. They are two well-informed, determined women who know the outdoor industry inside and out.
They are selecting task force members who must include a bunch of state agency people, three guides and outfitters, and — gasp! — one nonresident sportsman.
The task force must deliver a report and recommendations to the Legislature by Dec. 1. Perhaps they’ll include this column in the report.
George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected] Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.