While everyone knows that Maine’s year-round island communities couldn’t exist without the lobster industry, summer tourism is also vital to the economic well-being of the islands.
According to the Island Institute’s most recent Island Indicators report, restaurant and lodging sales represent 35 percent of all island taxable sales. According to the report, Maine’s islands are more dependent on restaurant and lodging sales in the third quarter of the fiscal year than the state average.
Despite tourism’s importance for island economies, there is a dearth of data that can provide a clear picture of the economic health of island tourism. And, according to some island innkeepers, there has been little effort among island communities to band together to promote island tourism.
Still, anecdotal evidence suggests the state’s island tourism trade has seen steady growth.
Perhaps the easiest way to gauge the health of island tourism is to gauge the optimism of innkeepers on the island. All five island innkeepers interviewed report steady occupancy rates or gains in occupancy rates in the last couple of years. Their individual experiences vary, but all report things moving in the right direction.
“Every year, we’ve grown pretty dramatically,” said Casey Prentice, co-owner of the Chebeague Island Inn. “The state of Maine has been iron-hot in general.”
Rising occupancy rates have been at least partially fueled by rising popularity of island weddings, said Jayson Mathieu, event planner for The Inn on Peaks Island. His inn has seen an increase in demand for island weddings since Maine legalized gay marriage in 2012. He also believes that word has gotten out that Maine’s islands can offer a destination-type wedding that’s just a ferry-ride away.
“It’s really become the ‘it’ place to get married, which has been fantastic for us,” Mathieu said. “We just had two weddings back to back, so I’m pretty fried.”
While the Maine Office of Tourism has launched campaigns in recent years to attract tourists from Massachusetts and beyond, neither the office nor island innkeepers have undertaken any kind of coordinated marketing effort to drive tourists to Maine’s islands. Instead, island inns often see a boom in business when they are featured in travel magazines or in travel spots on television shows. Still, that kind of publicity doesn’t always leave a lasting impression, innkeepers warn. The Tidewater Motel on Vinalhaven was featured a couple of years ago on the Today Show and Travel and Leisure magazine, and it saw a temporary rise in occupancy rates, said Phil Crossman, the motel’s co-owner.
This past year, Nebo Lodge on North Haven also has been featured in several large magazines, but lodge manager Hannah Pingree isn’t expecting the buzz to last.
“A couple of big stories like that, they really do help,” Pingree said. “But it only lasts for so long.”
Marketing-wise, inns need to attract more shoulder-season business, Pingree said. She’s found it’s harder to get tourists to come to the islands in May and in the fall because of fears of choppy waters and iffy weather. Many island lodgings can achieve near 100 percent occupancy rates in the summer, but that’s not enough.
“You can’t make a restaurant or inn successful by being even 100 percent full in July and August,” Pingree said.
When inns stay in the black, they have an important trickle-down effect on island communities, Chebeague’s Prentice said.
Pingree estimates that Nebo Lodge ends up employing about 70 individuals throughout the calendar year. While many are short-term or seasonal workers, that figure includes some four or five islanders who are employed year-round.
“That’s significant for this small town,” she said.
It’s hard to gauge the economic impact of island tourism. There has never been a study that has focused on the industry’s impact on island communities or the Maine economy, and it’s difficult to extrapolate that impact from statewide labor data. If a Maine island is part of another municipality, that island’s economic data is absorbed into municipal data. Island communities which are independent municipalities have more labor force data, but some of that data isn’t accessible if it will expose individual income to public scrutiny in small communities, said Glen Mills, economic research director at the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research.
“When you get into small areas, you run into some confidentiality problems,” Mills said.
Aside from the institute’s Island Indicators report, the closest one can come to study data on island tourism comes from the Maine Island Trail Association, which focuses on the stewardship of non-populated islands in Maine. In an award-winning 2011 study conducted by Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, it was calculated that visitors to Maine’s uninhabited islands brought in $3.2 million to the Maine economy. That figure was created by combining survey data with guestbook logs and individual interviews.
The study helped the association understand its role in the Maine economy, said Doug Welch, the association’s executive director. It also helped the association prove that the state was spending less on stewardship for the trail than it was making on visitation.
“It allowed us to have a sense of what our place is in the world,” Welch said.
GROWTH AND BALANCE
Maine’s island innkeepers all agreed that it’s important to maintain the delicate balance between island tourism and island living. All who were interviewed said they didn’t want to take in more tourists than their island communities could handle.
After laying out the limitations of tourism growth on Swan’s Island, Harbor Watch Inn owner Colleen Hyland admitted she wasn’t worried about boosting her occupancy rates. She values the relaxed pace on Swan’s Island more.
“I like it the way it is,” Hyland said. “I don’t have to lock my doors.”
Still, some innkeepers said it would be nice to coordinate with their colleagues on other islands. Nebo Lodge and the Tidewater Motel often send customers back and forth, and Pingree hopes for more interaction with other island tourism business owners.
“I always felt like it would be good to have island innkeepers and people running island businesses talking more with each other, maybe even consider a joint marketing effort,” Pingree said.