The development of tourism in Maine to its full potential depends less on separating our visitors from more of their money and more on separating them from more of their vehicles. Maine as a place encompasses about 35,000 square miles and includes more than 490 separately incorporated cities, towns and plantations as well as millions of acres of unorganized territory. But 67 percent of lodging sales — the foundational component of the hospitality industry — is concentrated in seven economic areas encompassing barely 7 percent of the state’s total area. And more than 91 percent of lodging sales are concentrated in 18 areas encompassing barely 15 percent of the state’s total area.

There are, it seems to me, two basic spatial models for tourism — the river and stream model and the hub and spokes model. In the first, visitors to Maine travel (almost exclusively in their own private automobiles) along the state’s highways and roads much like fish swimming up our rivers and streams. In this model, tourism — like fishing — is a matter of finding a good spot, placing an effective lure and catching enough passers-by to satisfy each particular fisherman’s annual income requirements over the course of the much smaller seasonal “run” of visitors.

This model is conducive to a wide variety of largely independent small businesses. The initial capital requirements are relatively low; there are relatively few technical and regulatory barriers to entry; and as long as our state and local governments maintain the road network adequately, the annual “run” of visitors is fairly reliable. The major uncertainties driving year-to-year fluctuations are gasoline prices, the state of the national business cycle, weekend weather forecasts and the Canadian exchange rate.

This model served Maine well for virtually all of the 20th century. It is the fundamental reason for the largely positive image that Maine enjoys across the country (and increasingly the world). It provides good jobs — largely seasonal — for thousands of Mainers and thousands of seasonally temporary immigrants who have become the human lifeblood of the industry in the wake of the ever-increasing shortage of young Maine residents brought on by the demographic imbalance of our “oldest in the nation” population status.

Finally, this model has provided the basis for substantial wealth for hundreds of successful business people and families who have proved adept at mastering the requirements of providing reliable hospitality.

But this model faces serious threats — traffic congestion in popular areas, worker shortages exacerbated by uncertainty surrounding foreign visa programs, and the ever-growing fiscal pressures that demographic imbalance and fuel efficiency places on the state’s highway maintenance programs.

A second model of tourism — the hub and spokes model — exists in Maine today primarily through the cruise ship industry. Instead of arriving in Maine by car and traveling in small parties along the highway network, visitors arrive in floating hotels (mini-city-like hubs) and spread out like spokes throughout the select set of ports they visit. This model is far more capital-intensive for the travel portion of the business and keeps most of the lodging, meals and entertainment spending in the pockets of the cruise ship industry.

Despite these disadvantages, however, I believe this model points the way to the future of tourism in Maine, a tourism that can spread the economic benefits of visitor spending over a far wider area of the state and that can provide enormous opportunities to Maine entrepreneurs and the towns and cities willing to think bigger about destination resort tourism. The key to 21st-century tourism in Maine is finding ways to capture the auto-free advantages of the cruise ship model. Achievement of this goal will require three essential investments.

The first investment is creation of new hubs, new equivalents of cruise ships docked permanently in selected spots across Maine.

They would be destination resorts that provide easy access to visitors across the globe, comfortable accommodations with a wide variety of easily accessible shopping and entertainment options designed both to provide a “taste” of Maine and a familiarity and sophistication comfortable for the global traveler.

The second investment is creation around each hub of a set of clearly defined, explained and guided “adventures” — whitewater rafting, fishing trips, hiking, biking, cultural/historical tours, bird and other wildlife sightings, business and amenity group training/learning events, on and on. This investment would require extensive investment in human capital, i.e., in training knowledgeable, courteous and enthusiastic guides and docents.

The third investment would be extensive public investment in non-highway transportation. Success of visitor hubs across rural Maine would require a vast increase in in-state air travel and in coordination of those flights with bus and van transportation that would seamlessly transport visitors and their baggage and equipment to their chosen hubs in quick and efficient ways.

All of these investments would require extensive public-private partnerships in planning, permitting and financing this new model. But the benefits of success present the clearest opportunity we have for retooling Maine’s largest industry for another century of success — one that serves all regions of the state.

Charles Lawton, Ph.D., is a consulting economist. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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