Mainers have always had a love-hate relationship with tourists. We’ve made them the centerpiece of our jokes, derided them as people “from away,” or worse, and even been subject to advertising urging us to be nicer to them.

The ads seemed to have worked. The key tourism survey in 2011 turned up no complaints about us — but a few about our roads. We agree!

In the early 1900s, a correspondent for The Nation reported, “As a whole, the disposition to provide especially for the needs or desires of visitors is not strong,” amongst Maine’s residents. “The assumption seems to be, rather, that the visitors are sure to come anyway, and that the less there is expended for their gratification, the greater will be the profit from despoiling them.”

Some locals worried that summer visitors distracted families from their work, drove up farm wages and set a poor example of extravagance.

Yet between 1879 and 1909 investments in Maine summer resorts increased from $500,000 to $138 million, and tourist-industry income rose from $250,000 to $20 million. Vacationland was up and running.

The Poland Spring Hotel’s Hill-Top magazine urged Mainers to thank summer visitors for “awakening us to the significance of our home.”

Well, there is that. And the fact that tourism now delivers about $5.5 billion to our economy — up slightly from that turn-of-the-century $20 million. It’s now our No. 1 industry.

Before heading off to the Governor’s Conference on Tourism at Sunday River last week, I reread favorite sections of “Common Lands, Common People: the Origins of Conservation in Northern New England,” written by Richard W. Judd and published by Harvard University Press in 1997. I often quote from this fascinating book, from which the information above was retrieved. Here’s a favorite passage about tourism.

“Hundreds of miles deep in the interior Maine woods, visitors to the rambling Kineo House on Moosehead Lake feasted on roast lamb, wild strawberry preserves, and cream in the largest dining hall in the state.

“They delighted in the hotel’s comfortable beds, steam heat, gas lights, open fireplaces, and in-room bathrooms before disembarking by canoe into the ‘freedom of the forests.’ Reporters dispelled the ‘popular delusion about the black fly,’ which allegedly had been driven from the area by the onset of civilization.”

Well, ahem, and we hope you don’t experience the no-see-ems, mosquitoes, and deer and moose flies.

I saw none of those at the tourism conference, which was at times interesting, entertaining, and sobering, offering a mix of speeches, awards, and seminars, as well as a mixed report about the status of the state’s tourism industry.

The sobering part came as I talked with members of the tourism industry throughout the day. I heard about the recent suicide attempt of an innkeeper and owner of one of my favorite Maine restaurants who is suffering severe financial problems.

A friend who owns a large resort in the North Woods lamented the tough snowless winter, wondering if his business will make it to the more prosperous summer. The entire town of Greenville was raised up as being in serious trouble: no deer, no ice, no snow, no customers.

Thank God for the energy and enthusiasm of Carolann Ouellette, director of Maine’s Office of Tourism. After operating her own restaurant in Jackman for 10 years, she knows just how tough it can be in rural Maine, and she’s doing everything she can to bring aid and comfort to the tourism industry there.

Ouellette’s speech was energetic and compelling, demonstrating that her office’s programming and marketing decisions are driven by good science, research and data. Here are a few things that I learned.

Visits to Maine were up 8.5 percent in 2011 over 2010. That’s really good. But I can tell you, based on the many trips Linda and I took last year for our weekly travel column in the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel, the coast got most of that increase. Inland tourist-based businesses continued to struggle.

The state grabbed $400 million in taxes from tourists in 2011, a return of $8 for every $1 invested; 9.5 million overnight visitors and 13.8 million day visitors enjoyed our state and 35 percent did so to experience some kind of outdoor recreation — the leading reason tourists come to our state.

They didn’t stay here as long as we’d like and most were not first-time visitors. Most come because Maine is close, they own a second home here, or they have family here.

And sometimes, even when we do everything right, it doesn’t snow, and they don’t come.

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.