A motorcyclist drives past a picnic table set up on Cottage Street in downtown Bar Harbor on May 21, 2020. Tourism industry officials feared that COVID-related concerns and restrictions on people entering Maine from out of state could severely limit the number of tourists who came to Maine in 2020. Statewide, 27 percent fewer people visited the state than in 2019. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

Maine’s 2020 tourist season was marked by sparsely used restaurant tables, hotel rooms and recreation areas, but the industry is seeing signs of a recovery this year after historic losses remained smaller than many feared.

Maine had 12 million day and overnight visitors in 2020 who spent $4.8 billion in 2020, according to data released this week by the Maine Office of Tourism. It was 27 percent fewer visitors last year compared to 2019 and 27 percent less spent in one of the state’s largest industries, accounting for 1 in 7 Maine jobs. Pandemic-related restrictions and business contractions caused a 20 percent employment drop to 90,600 in 2020.

But reservations are up this year as restrictions continue to lift, particularly in the hotspots of Bar Harbor and Old Orchard Beach, and businesses are cautiously optimistic about the coming tourism season as hotel, wedding and other reservations are off to a strong start. Gov. Janet Mills is easing restrictions by increasing capacities in venues and allowing non-residents to visit the state without quarantine or testing. On Tuesday, the state lifted the residency requirement to get vaccinated here.

It will be an uphill battle to return to pre-pandemic levels. The Maine Office of Tourism hopes to get visitor numbers up to 16.1 million by 2024. The U.S. Travel Association’s January 2021 forecast estimates Maine’s cumulative loss at $1.9 billion in total travel spending this year. Visitors are likely to be back to 88 percent of the 2019 figure this year, and the amount those people spend is expected to reach 79 percent of the 2019 number, although the Maine Office of Tourism said in its 2021 plan that Maine should do better than those projections.

The 27 percent decline in 2020 was a good reflection of what really happened, especially after last year’s dismal spring, said Alf Anderson, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce.

“If you had talked to me a year ago, I would have predicted that we were going to be down 80 percent or more,” he said. “The 27 percent decrease is still terrible.”

Business picked up in Bar Harbor from July through September. Acadia National Park had its busiest winter ever, despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic that caused park visits last year to fall by more than 750,000.

Indications so far this season are pointing to a strong bounceback on Mount Desert Island, Anderson said. Some of the lodging properties that opened a little earlier than normal are seeing strong reservations through the rest of the summer, despite fewer expected visits from cruise ships.

Anderson expects more land-based tourism and a shift in visitor patterns. Usually people will drive within a 10-hour radius to visit Bar Harbor, but with some still leery of air travel, he thinks they will drive up to 20 hours.

There has already been a noticeable uptick in day visitors from other parts of Maine and neighboring Massachusetts and New Hampshire during the pandemic, Kim Howard, executive director of the Old Orchard Beach Chamber of Commerce, said. Hotels and campgrounds are getting good numbers of reservations, some from people who return each year, so she remains cautiously optimistic about this season.

“We’ll have a better summer this year, but I’m not sure we’ll make up for lost ground,” Howard said. “2019 was one of the best summers for tourism in Maine.”

Like Bar Harbor, Old Orchard Beach typically gets a lot of visitors from Canada. The pandemic-related border closure between Canada and the United States caused 80 percent fewer Canadian tourists to come to Maine in 2021, costing about $1 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal. Howard said the falloff in Canadian tourists caused business in Old Orchard Beach to fall up to 40 percent.

Mills told the state’s annual tourism meeting on Tuesday that 17 percent of visitors come from Canada, and she will continue to work with Maine’s congressional delegation to push President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to open the border to non-essential travelers this summer.

The Maine Office of Tourism launched several ad campaigns last year, including a $2 million effort to market the state as a safe place to be during the pandemic. Starting last July, it focused on Mainers traveling within the state and tourists from the five states that at the time were exempt from testing and 14-day quarantines: Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, New Jersey and Connecticut. Now, all U.S. travelers can come to Maine.

Despite a late start to the season, BigRock Ski Area saw skiers of many ages coming out to enjoy a day on the slopes in this Jan. 8, 2021 file photo. Credit: Courtesy of BigRock

Howard and Anderson credit those campaigns with helping increase tourism. But they didn’t help ski resorts, whose lodges, restaurants and bars struggled with early pandemic restrictions when they opened in November despite limits lifting into March as the season ended, according to Dirk Gouwens, executive director of the Ski Maine Association.

Food and beverage sales were down an average 70 percent at resorts this season largely due to capacity limits, he said. The other restrictions that weighed heavily on Maine ski resorts were testing and quarantine rules that neighboring New Hampshire did not have.

Resorts also were hit by a 20 percent drop in overall businesses because Canadians couldn’t enter the state, and restrictions in visitors from other states caused another 25 percent drop in sales, he said.

Gouwens expects the next ski season to be normal, but it won’t replace the business declines last year.

“What’s lost is lost,” he said.