Visitors at a waterfront park, in Bar Harbor on May 15, 2021. A week later Gov. Janet Mills eliminated most outdoor distancing requirements imposed during the COVID-19 pandemic as the tourism season began to kick into gear. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / AP

Tourists in Maine spent $1.3 billion more last year than they did before the pandemic in 2019 even though there were almost 1 million fewer visitors in total, with early activity signaling another huge summer tourism season.

The strong recovery in 2021 came with most pandemic restrictions of 2020 eased and despite a sharp falloff in Canadian visitors due to border restrictions. Those restrictions were lifted late last year and even more tourists are expected to flood the state in 2022.

More than 15.6 million visitors spent more than $7.8 billion in the state in 2021, according to data released Thursday by the Maine Office of Tourism at the annual Governor’s Conference on Tourism.

 There were 16.5 million visitors in 2019 before the pandemic, even though spending last year was 18 percent higher than in 2019. 

Pent-up demand drove tourists to travel and spend more. Maine residents traveled more in the state in 2021, including overnight visits, and spent $1.3 billion. The highest number of visitors in 2021, some 19 percent, came from Maine, followed by 13 percent from Massachusetts and 10 percent from New York. Some 23 percent of total visitors came to the state for the first time.

Food and beverage topped the activities of visitors at 65 percent, with half sightseeing and 40 percent engaging in outdoor activities or shopping.

Tourism is a major contributor to Maine’s economy, with a total economic impact of almost $14.5 billion in 2021, up 61 percent over the first year of the pandemic marked by economic restrictions. The industry supports about 143,100 jobs, about 21 percent of employment in the state.

Canadian visitors, who accounted for about one-fifth of all tourism-related retail expenditures before the pandemic, were largely absent over past two years. About 362,500 Canadians spent $213 million in Maine in 2020, but only 63,600 visited in 2021 and spent only $32 million with the U.S. border reopening to Canadians only late in the year.

Early signs that this tourism season will get off to a strong start include strong restaurant tax revenues, an indicator of overall business activity, which rose almost 12 percent in January over that month in 2021 and were up 26 percent in February, according to Maine Revenue Services. Lodging taxes rose 62 percent and were up 50 percent in February compared with the previous year.

Industry group HospitalityMaine said members are already reporting strong bookings for this spring and summer despite high gas prices. Tourism this year is “taking off like a rocket,” Matthew Lewis, president and  CEO of HospitalityMaine, said.

“We expect this summer will exceed 2021,” he said

The group has been working to help ease worker shortages that have dampened an otherwise strong recovery by hotels and restaurants. Last April the hospitality group, acknowledging its industry was short about 16,000 workers, launched a $125,000 marketing campaign aimed at attracting workers. In the fall it also launched a five-year plan that included more education and career-building for hospitality workers.

The federal government added 35,000 more H-2B visas for seasonal workers from April 1 through Sept. 30, a move welcomed by Lewis and U.S. Sens. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats.

“Without their help, many of these hotels and restaurants would be unable to open or would have to curtail their operations, hurting local communities and Maine workers employed by these businesses,” the senators said in a joint statement when the visas were announced in March. 

Still, the industry needs to do more to attract workers because the visas “will not end the deep challenges Maine faces with labor shortages,” Lewis said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story contained 2019 data that has since been updated by the state. The new numbers are included in the story.

Lori Valigra, senior reporter for economy and business, 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...