February 28, 2011

Whale watching off the coast of Maine has increased in recent years. Photo in Bar Harbor, Maine by Ramona du Houx

The last five years have witnessed an increase in nature-based tourism in Maine. With new opportunities for kayaking, nature trail walks, whale watching, cross-country skiing, whitewater rafting, geocaching, gemstone digging, camping, biking, fishing, and hiking, the industry is on the rise.

Maine is playing a unique role in this tourism industry, being one of the few Northeastern states with wild places left to explore. Because of the task force’s work, every region is building on their natural assets with nature-based tourism efforts, so communities prosper.

“Maine is lobsters, lighthouses, L.L.Bean, and so much more,” said Governor Baldacci, when he received the final report from his Governor’s Nature-Based Tourism Task Force last December. “Nature-based tourism boosts economic development in every region of Maine.”

The task force was formed five years ago to implement recommendations by Fermata, a nationally known nature-based tourism consulting firm, to develop and expand nature-based tourism opportunities in Maine’s rural communities.

The approach was new to the state, because it focused on making the effort regionally led. In this way local communities had a direct input into highlighting and investing in what they agreed were their best natural assets.

“I’m pleased with the successes detailed in this report,” said Governor John E. Baldacci, last December. “This effort began five years ago as an economic development initiative focused on rural Maine, where there is a wealth of natural resources, but a lack of basic tourism infrastructure to connect visitors to these recreational opportunities. Natural resources and tourism are vibrant elements of our state and our economy and have been priorities of my administration.”

Task Force members have focused on making the critical connections between regional resources, tourism, and economic development. An important goal has been how to maximize resources to propel Maine as the premier ecotourism destination.

Last summer the Department of Conservation launched a Maine State Park Passport initiative that grew from this task force’s work. Sixty thousand passports were issued. For many people living in Maine, the quest of visiting all of the state’s parks became a family vacation goal, as 20,000 people visited all of the state’s parks.

The Sunrise Trail, Downeast, has snowmobilers, and many nature enthusiasts all year long. Maine Huts and Trails, a unique trail system with huts built along the routes, opened its third wooden lodge, which also serves food, this year.

And Maine’s bird-watching initiative grew from Rep. Bob Duchene’s input on the task force and continues to draw thousands of visitors from out of state. Maine’s diverse, unspoilt landscape makes it one of the top year-round bird-watching destinations. The Maine Birding Trail brochure was introduced in 2010 and became the Office of Tourism’s most requested pamphlet, which highlights 82 of the top birding locations in Maine.

“We baby boomers were searching for an outdoor activity that, shall we say, didn’t exhaust us,” said Duchene. “Bird watching is amazing. Maine really has a tremendous opportunity here.”

The Northern Forest Canoe Trail’s 740 miles stretch from New York to Fort Kent, with the longest stretch running through Maine’s lakes and rivers. Businesses catering to canoeing, weekend excursions, and supplying campers’ needs in towns along this stretch have increased over the last five years.]

Some Maine top outdoor industry leaders have collaborated by creating the Maine Woods Discovery Packages, which guide visitors through a variety of outdoor adventures, including fly fishing, backpacking the hut system, whitewater rafting, geocaches, and gemstone digging.

The Wild Brook Trout Initiative highlights the fact that Maine is home to 97 percent all the wild brook trout in the U.S.

Governor Baldacci said that impressive gains have been made since the Nature-Based Tourism initiative began, and that fully achieving the Task Force goals requires a long-term commitment from all partners. Preserving Maine’s heritage through land preservation and limited development will ensure this tourism sector continues to grow.

Tourism pumps $10- to $13 billion into the state economy each year and employs 140,000 workers, which is nearly 22 percent of the state’s workforce, according to the Maine Office of Tourism. Ecotourism is playing an ever-increasing role.