People walk on a stone path in a harbor.
People walk on the Rockland breakwater on Tuesday Sept. 7, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Pack your patience and prepare for tough left hand turns because Maine tourism officials expect last year’s banner tourism year to have an encore this summer.

As Memorial Day Weekend nears, several coastal tourist destinations say they have solid summer bookings, high amounts of spring foot traffic and are getting queries in French — a sign that Maine’s northern neighbors are back after largely being absent the past two summers due to closed borders.

Though the pandemic caused a sluggish 2020, Maine’s tourism industry roared back last year with tourists spending $1.3 billion more in the Pine Tree State than they did in 2019. That trend appears to not be stopping anytime soon.

“Our expectations are that summer will be likely busier than last year,” said Matt Lewis, the president of HospitalityMaine, a restaurant and hotel industry group.

But with the expected hustle and bustle that comes with the unofficial start of summer, seaside towns say they are still struggling with staffing levels, especially in food and hospitality.  

“One of our largest concerns is finding enough people to employ to keep up with it all,” said Tom Peaco, the CEO of the Penobscot Bay Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Prominent midcoast destinations such as Rockland and Camden have already had lots of visitors pour onto the streets this spring, and Peaco guessed that this summer would have just  as many tourists as the last.

Farther south in Old Orchard Beach, people have been flocking to the beaches as the weather brightens. Most hotels and campgrounds in the area are almost entirely booked for the holiday weekend.

“I think Old Orchard Beach is as ready as it can be,” said Kim Howard, the executive director of the local chamber of commerce.

Up the coast in Bar Harbor, while many businesses still struggle with staffing, the release of additional H-2B visas for foreign workers and the return of J-1 student worker visas has helped ease the crunch of last year, said Eben Salvatore, the local director of operations at Ocean Properties, which owns several hotels and other tourism-related businesses in Maine.

His company will have about 200 students, largely from eastern Europe, working this summer on the J-1 visa — a huge leap from last year when Ocean Properties had none due to travel restrictions. The company’s gain could radiate to smaller businesses that normally don’t get foreign workers because the students often pick up side jobs.

Along with the return of more foreign workers, tourism officials predict there will be more international visitors as well. Canadian tourists — who before the pandemic accounted for about one-fifth of all tourism related retail expenditures in Maine — are already vacationing along the coast. Meanwhile, the CAT ferry between Maine and Nova Scotia restarted last week for the first time since it halted service in 2018.

Even with the challenges and the ongoing staff shortage, Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce executive director Alf Anderson predicted that business owners would be better prepared to handle the crowds this year after making it through a challenging 2021.

“That little bit of experience definitely helps,” he said.