Scott Warren, co-owner of Megunticook Campground by the Sea in Rockport, hangs a new sign at the entrance of the campground in this May 2020 file photo. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

“No vacancy” signs appeared at many Maine campgrounds before the Labor Day weekend as a record number of reservations are expected to spill into the fall despite sharply rising COVID-19 infections and the absence of Canadian tourists.

Campgrounds, along with other lodging establishments and restaurants, were among the businesses hit hardest by early pandemic restrictions, including capacity, quarantine and out-of-state visitor limitations.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that unvaccinated people not travel over the holiday weekend as COVID-19 cases mount. Maine’s CDC reported the largest single-day increase in cases in months on Friday, with 665 cases and three deaths.

Most campgrounds are not seeing cancellations, though. While Mainers dominated bookings last year, this year license plates from as far away as Texas and Alaska line campgrounds. Most campgrounds have been doing well and more people have purchased RVs and are flocking from cities to rural areas, said Steve Lyons, director of the Maine Office of Tourism.

Catherine Plourde and Scott Warren, owners of Megunticook Campground by the Sea in Rockport, are shown here in May 2020. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

“People are excited to be outdoors,” said Catherine Plourde, co-owner of the Megunticook Campground by the Sea and the Camden Hills Community Campground, both in Rockport. “We’re having our best season ever.”

Her business was off 30 percent or more last year, but this year it is higher than before the pandemic in 2019. Megunticook has 98 campsites and Camden Hills has 54 sites.

About 265,000 people camped in state parks from January through August of this year, up about 16 percent over those same months in 2020 and 2019, according to the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands. Non-resident state park camping reservations rose 32 percent over 2020, while those from Maine residents were up about 1 percent. Private licenses campgrounds also are seeing more visitors this year than each of the past two years.

“This could be the best year ever for the majority of campgrounds,” said Kathy Dyer, executive director of the Maine Campground Owners Association, which has more than 180 members.

She said most are filled up for the holiday and some are extending normal mid-October closing dates this year because of high demand. Others, however, are seeing fewer Canadian visitors. The U.S. recently extended the border closing one month until Sept. 21.

At the Houlton/Canadian Border KOA Journey campground, a group of Canadians had to cancel reservations when the border opening was delayed, but the camp still is nearly full for the holiday weekend, said co-owner Michelle Barnard. It had a cookout and ice cream social for guests planned over the weekend.

Throngs of visitors are good business for campgrounds, but some owners worry that guests might get bored because of early closures of some seasonal restaurants and shops or limited hours due to staffing shortages.

“Finding an open restaurant may be difficult and it may impact the extent to which they enjoy the region,” Plourde said, adding that her Midcoast campgrounds planned a lobster bake on Saturday. “But there is lots to do outdoors, including 11 lighthouses within one hour of us and hiking.”

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Lori Valigra, investigative reporter for the environment, holds an M.S. in journalism from Boston University. She was a Knight journalism fellow at M.I.T. and has extensive international reporting experience...