From Europe with Love
- By: Jeff Clark
- Photography by: Jennifer Baum
Tour operator Nan Wimms doesn’t have to do much to persuade her clients to visit Maine. “It’s the anti-Disney,” she explains. “It’s real America — the unspoiled beaches, the mountains, the quaint towns. [Maine] is hugely popular here in the U.K.”
That’s U.K. as in United Kingdom. Wimms, an American who has lived in Britain for twenty-six years, and her
husband, Richard, operate New England Vacations in Harpenden, England. And they’re finding a number of their clients start with the “six states in two weeks” tour and then come back the next year to book trips only to Maine.
After dropping to nearly nothing in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, foreign tourism in Maine, particularly from Europe, is on the upswing again. Some resorts and inns now count almost 10 percent of their business in visitors from England, Germany, France, Italy, and other countries. Foreign tourists are discovering that Maine offers a pastoral view of the United States beyond New York City’s skyscrapers and Washington, D.C.’s museums.
“If there’s one word that we hear all the time, it’s ‘authentic’,” says Patricia Eltman, director of the Maine Office of Tourism. “We’re not commercialized, and people love touring around the state.” But ask Eltman or anyone else in the tourist industry in Maine how many visitors from Europe or Asia are among the estimated ten million tourists who travel to Maine each year, and the most common answer is a shrug of the shoulders. The lack of specific data is the fundamental weakness in any conversation about foreign tourism.
“We don’t have any solid numbers,” says Eltman. “It’s all anecdotal.” Her information comes from casual conversations with innkeepers and tour operators. The only investment the state makes in promoting itself overseas is the $97,500 it contributes each year to Discover New England, a Vermont-based organization that markets the six New England states as a group. Another $300,000 of the office’s $8.9-million annual budget goes toward advertising Maine in Canada.
“We use most of our money in the United States and Canada,” Eltman explains. “We have the thirty-seventh lowest tourist budget in the country, so we have to spend money where we’ll get the biggest bang for the buck.”
It’s an odd state of affairs, considering that tourism is Maine’s largest economic driver, with leisure visitors spending an estimated $10 billion in 2006, generating $429 million in tax revenues and supporting more than 140,000 jobs. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, foreign tourism nationwide rose 7 percent last year to 23.2 million people, at a time when domestic travel was barely holding its own as energy prices soared. (The number is still well below the 26 million foreigners who came before 9/11.) An estimated 1.4 million of those visitors came to New England. With foreign tourists spending an average of $3,500 per person per visit, a small but significant portion of Maine’s vacation income comes in the form of pounds, euros, and yen.
Because it serves as the primary port of entry for foreign visitors to New England, Massachusetts has a better handle on the numbers, says Betsy Wall, executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism in Boston. The division spends $2.5 million, almost a quarter of its $11-million budget, to promote Massachusetts internationally. The state retains agencies to represent it in eight foreign countries, including the U.K., Germany, Ireland, Italy, and the Netherlands. Those eight nations alone sent 1,165,000 visitors in the 2007 fiscal year. “In 2007, [foreign tourists] spent $1.8 billion in Massachusetts,” Wall adds. “That was an 11.1 percent increase over 2006.”
In a way, European visitors are almost a throwback to the summercators of old who booked lengthy stays at favorite hotels and resorts. Foreign guests commonly stay a week or more at a time and often travel in family groups that take two or more rooms. And they plan their vacations well in advance. “I already have three rooms booked from England next fall for foliage season,” says Ruth McLaughlin, owner with her husband, Dan, of the popular Blair Hill Inn in Greenville.
“There’s a real trend developing where domestic visitors are booking rooms within a much shorter time period than they once did,” Eltman explains. “They check the weather forecast and call on a Wednesday or Thursday for a weekend reservation. But European visitors plan way ahead. They don’t care about gas prices or the weather.” A U.S. Department of Commerce report notes that foreign vacationers make plans an average of ninety-eight days in advance, and almost half use a travel agent to book their trips.
Anecdotally, the vast majority of visitors from abroad come from Europe, in particular the United Kingdom and Germany, although other Eurozone nations are also well represented. “I didn’t realize until I sat down with the guest book, but we had visitors from ten different countries last year,” says McLaughlin.
Frank and Min Russell, of Newbridge, England, retired three years ago and, after earlier visits to Boston and Washington, D.C., they toured New England by car in 2007. “We quickly realized it was Maine that we most preferred,” Frank Russell says in an e-mail. “Last year we spent three weeks staying in Greenville, Bar Harbor, and Kennebunkport.”
The draw, Russell says, is the scenery, the ocean, “and the splendid peace and quiet . . . Coming from the U.K., which is a small and crowded island, my wife and I like the ‘bigness’ and solitude of upstate Maine in particular. The food and wine aren’t half bad either.”
Russell says they were also impressed with the warmth and friendliness of Mainers. “In the sixteen days we were in Maine, we were invited out to dinner three times by three different couples!” he recalls. “That is something that just would not happen here in the U.K.”
“It was an unforgettable experience,” says Paolo Carrà, a rice farmer from Vercelli, Italy, in an e-mail describing his family’s visit last August to Kennebunkport, Portland, and Mount Desert Island. “A European is shocked by the [immensity] of the place; everything is bigger and so neat . . . The best place in my opinion was Acadia National Park. I was [surprised] to see pine [trees] near the ocean, seals, and the beautiful beach.”
He confesses that Portland and the Old Port were not the high points of his trip (“similar to Newport”), although he was deeply impressed by the two women who helped them find Portland Head Light. “In New England everyone helps the stranger,” he says.
“We love the very laid-back feeling Maine has, and I must admit we have yet to meet a Maine resident we did not like,” says Cassandra Petibout of Oxfordshire, England, who says she and her fiancé, Stephen Harness, admire Maine, and particularly Belfast, so much they even considered moving here. Instead, they are getting married this October at the Blair Hill Inn in Greenville.
“Maine seems to live in a more genteel time,” offers Nan Wimms, the English tour operator. “It’s a less hurried existence.”
“New England is seen as a very wholesome destination,” explains Sue Norrington-Davies, Discover New England’s managing director. “It’s perceived as safe. The pace is much quieter than in the U.K., for example. It’s almost a trip back in time for them, with the open countryside and the small fishing villages. It’s a more old-fashioned vacation for them, I guess.”
The Internet plays an increasingly important role in attracting visitors to Maine, according to travelers and business owners. “People research a place on the Internet and then come to us to book a visit,” explains Wimms, the English tour operator. Few foreigners book ski vacations in Maine though. “July through October are the most popular months.”
Bob Hamer, executive director of the Moosehead Lake Region Chamber of Commerce, credits the Web with bringing many new foreign visitors to the Greenville region. “Probably the single biggest way everyone finds us is typing the words ‘Moosehead Lake’ into Google,” he says. “It’s very difficult competing with coastal Maine and the resort areas. But every map of Maine has that huge lake in the middle of it, and we’re Number One in any Google search for Moosehead Lake.”
The Web was less a factor when Bob Smith at Sebasco Harbor Resort in Phippsburg began actively courting the European market shortly after buying the business in 1997. “There had always been a trickle of visitors from the United Kingdom,” he explains. “People would find us primarily through the summer residents in the neighborhood.” Smith began attending the World Travel Market show in London and other international travel conferences to talk up his resort to tour operators and travel agents.
“Back in 1998-99 I was one of the few people going from Maine,” he recalls. Other resorts and inns “didn’t see a lot of payback potential,” but he felt he had a unique product to promote. “There aren’t a lot of resorts like this in Europe,” Smith explains. “Our guests are mostly looking for a nice Maine experience. We do a lot of lobster bakes, we have our own boat for trips, and guests can kayak into Casco Bay right off the dock. Maine is very authentic for them.”
Today Smith estimates that foreign tourism will approach 10 percent of his total business this year.
But some 92 percent of foreign visitors list shopping as one of their vacation activities, and Maine’s outlet shops, especially in Kittery and Freeport, have become famous among overseas bargain hunters. They’ve given rise to what Norrington-Davies calls the “two-suitcase syndrome.” “Outlet shopping is hugely important,” she explains. “Many goods are considerably cheaper here than in Europe. So visitors come over with one suitcase and go back with two.”
Nan Wimms adds that some luxury European goods were cheaper in the United States than they were in Europe last year, reflecting the effect of bouncing currency rates. Captain Jack Moore, owner of the schooner Surprise out of Camden harbor, says the exchange rate “is a very sensitive barometer” of the foreign tourists he sees on day cruises. Last year, for example, “the pound didn’t do as well as the euro compared to the dollar, so we saw more visitors from Italy and Germany than we did the U.K.,” he notes. (Full disclosure: Moore is the father of Down East Deputy Editor Joshua F. Moore.)
The effect this year of the international economic situation remains to be seen, although everyone describes themselves as cautiously optimistic. “I don’t anticipate the kind of increases we’ve seen in recent years,” says Carolann Ouellette, the deputy director of the Office of Tourism, “but I’m not expecting a serious decline, either.”
A 2007 Department of Commerce report states that 69 percent of foreign tourists visit only one state, and making that state Maine will take more of the sort of guerilla marketing that people like Bob Smith and Hamer use, because the chance of increased funding from the legislature for advertising and promotion is nil in
the current economic climate. Maine businesses will also have to expend more effort to make themselves accessible to overseas vacationers. The Office of Tourism only recently found the money to put up a French-language version of its Web site, and Eltman hopes someday to add German and Spanish sites. Other foreign-language Web sites and brochures among businesses and tourist industry organizations are few and far between, although Hamer says the Greenville chamber’s new Web site will have important information in French, Italian, and Spanish. (“Most Germans already know English,” he notes.)
If comments from visitors like Cassandra Petibout are any guide, once they find Maine, foreign visitors want to come back. “Maine offers something for everyone,” she says, “whether a lover of fine food, shopping, outdoor pursuits, antiquing, or simply motoring. I feel comfortable there. I guess you could say it feels like home in a strange way. Home but far more exciting.”