Five giant trolls, the tallest of which tops 30 feet, and renewed interest in the outdoors amid the COVID-19 pandemic brought a record number of visitors to the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens last year, according to the economic impact report it released on Tuesday.
The 325-acre tourist attraction in Boothbay — New England’s largest botanical garden, with more than 100,000 live plants — brought in 336,400 visitors in 2021, the most in any year since it opened in 2007, with about three-quarters of them coming from Maine. They spent about $15.2 million while visiting the region, according to the report.
The visitor numbers, which are up 50 percent since 2019, mark a turnaround from the drop earlier in the pandemic, when Maine’s tourism businesses saw a sharp fall off across the board. The report was prepared for the gardens by data analysis firm Stepwise Data Research of Yarmouth.
Economists are closely watching the rebound of tourism, which this year is expected to top the strong numbers of 2021. Tourism is a major contributor to Maine’s economy, with a total economic impact of almost $14.5 billion in 2021 and supporting about 143,100 jobs, or about 21 percent of employment in Maine, according to state data.
The gardens contributed about $42 million and 490 jobs to Maine’s economy in 2021. The biggest economic impact was in Lincoln County, which alone saw a $24.5-million economic impact and 310 jobs. New exhibitions are being planned to boost those numbers.
“Our visitations increased a lot last year because of the giant trolls,” Gretchen Ostherr, president and CEO of the gardens, said. “Our goal is to introduce an exhibit like the trolls every other year.”
Business rose sharply in 2018, when the gardens invested $20 million to expand the visitor center, gift shop and infrastructure such as parking. Investments also included a native butterfly and moth house, a native bee hub and a caterpillar lab.
The buildouts initially drew protests from neighbors and the town of Boothbay, but a federal judge cleared the way for the expansion in 2018. The judge vacated the November 2017 decision by the Boothbay Board of Appeals to overturn the gardens’ building permit.
Revenue for the gardens has more than doubled to $8.6 million since 2018, and plans call for it to raise $42.5 million more for new projects over the next five years. They include renovating the cafe to handle more visitors, building a horticulture and propagation facility to grow more plants and constructing a conservatory. The conservatory, which is the costliest among the projects, would allow the gardens to operate year-round, Ostherr said.
The new investments, to be funded by donations from individuals and foundations, are expected to increase visitations by 12 percent by 2027 and boost revenue by 40 percent. If realized, the gardens expect to provide an economic impact of $54.8 million, up 31 percent from 2021, and 640 jobs to Maine in 2027.
The gardens already are contributing to increased visits to the Boothbay area and have extended the tourism shoulder season, Steve Lyons, director of the Maine Office of Tourism, said. The popular “Gardens Aglow” holiday lighting show, which will return to a walk-in version this year from a drive-through experience the past two years, has drawn more than 100,000 people.
“In an increasingly busy world, the gardens offer us an opportunity to slow down and appreciate the natural world around us,” Gov. Janet Mills said in a prepared comment on the economic impact report.