Hot-air balloons and their pilots get ready for takeoff in August at the Crown of Maine Balloon Fest in Presque Isle. The festival draws thousands of visitors to central Aroostook. Credit: Paula Brewer / The Star-Herald

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Tourists from Maine, around the United States and Canada swarmed north to experience Aroostook County this summer.

Though Maine overall saw about 10 percent fewer visitors than in 2021, those who visited spent more and stayed longer, state tourism officials said.

Aroostook County Tourism and several venue representatives said this spring The County needs to attract families and promote more of its assets. Focusing on outdoor sports like snowmobiling and hunting has been successful, but these draw mostly young male visitors. The group decided to launch more advertising targeting a wider range of people.

Whether it was that strategy or people longed for family-friendly activities and natural surroundings, tourism industry representatives said more visitors flocked to The County this summer.

“The sounds of the owls, the night sky full of stars, the sights of wildlife — that’s what people were yearning for, and they found it here. Everybody was just blown away at how clear the skies are,” said Scott Thompson, general manager at Aroostook State Park in Presque Isle.

Aroostook State Park Manager Scott Thompson of Mapleton stands near trees at the entrance to the park in September 2020. The park saw more Canadian visitors this year due to the open border. Credit: David Marino Jr. / BDN

Visitors statewide spent roughly $5.1 billion on lodging, food, transportation and other expenses this summer, up 4.1 percent from $4.9 billion in 2022, according to the Maine Office of Tourism. Though the office hasn’t released final visitor statistics, the opening of the Canadian border and high gas prices that kept people closer to home had a big impact on Aroostook County, where tourism brings about $200 million annually to the region’s economy.

Reservations at all of Maine’s state parks totaled a record of nearly 9,300 on the first day of the 2022 summer season, compared to around 7,200 last year, Thompson said.

Attendance at the Presque Isle park was down slightly from record years in 2020 and 2021, but not by much, he said. In 2021, around 4,300 people visited; this year it was closer to 4,100. Canadian campers hailed from Quebec and New Brunswick, in particular.

“We did have an increase in Canadian visitors, because let’s face it: they were not able to come here the last two years,” Thompson said.

Those numbers would have been higher if the U.S./Canadian border had been fully open earlier in the season, Thompson said.

Canada’s government announced in late September that, effective Oct. 1, it would remove all COVID-19 entry restrictions, as well as testing, quarantine and isolation requirements for anyone entering Canada. Prior to that, mandatory testing and reporting procedures made it difficult for Canadian travelers to return home, as well as for Americans to travel back and forth across the border.

Visitors to Presque Isle’s Visitor Information Center on the Houlton Road, located at the Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce, were unprecedented, chamber officials said.

Construction on the Madawaska-Edmundston International Bridge is underway in August. The bridge and other construction boosted hotel patronage during the summer. Credit: Jessica Potila / St. John Valley Times

Cameras allow staff to see how many people stop by outside of office hours. The center was so busy they had to keep restocking brochures, Chamber Executive Director LaNiece Sirois said.

People have had high interest in ATV and snowmobile trail maps and the chamber has already distributed thousands of them, Sirois said.

The Maine Potato Blossom Festival in Fort Fairfield and Presque Isle’s Crown of Maine Balloon Fest are two of the largest and most family-friendly attractions in central Aroostook and draw thousands of visitors to the area, she said. She reported the largest Family Fun Day celebration ever at the Balloon Fest and saw visitors from many states.

“That weekend our hotels were very very full and our restaurants were full,” she said. “I talked to people from Arizona, Texas, Massachusetts and down state Maine — there were people from everywhere.”

 Like the state park, the Houlton/Canadian Border KOA Journey campground in Houlton saw more campers than in the past few years, thanks mostly to the open border and high gas prices. People could still enjoy camping, but didn’t have to spend gas money to travel as far, said Michelle Barnard, co-owner.

This season, her second as a co-owner, was even better than last year’s successful run, with numerous travelers from Canada and from the southern part of Maine.  

Barnard and her sister, Marlene Greenlaw, and their husbands David Barnard and David Greenlaw, purchased the former My Brother’s Place campground in 2020 from then-owner Sally Nickel.

Sally Nickel, center, the previous owner of My Brother’s Place, stands with new owners Michelle and David Barnard, left, and Marlene and David Greenlaw. The Houlton/Canadian Border KOA Journey campground had a busy tourist season. Credit: Courtesy of Michelle Barnard

“The previous owner had a big Canadian following, so this year those people who couldn’t be here for the last two years could come back,” Barnard said.

Many Canadian travelers spent a night or two camping before heading south, she said.

Aroostook hotels also saw increases in visitors.

“We’ve been probably busier than ever,” said Tammie Lerman, owner of the Long Lake Motor Inn in St. Agatha. “We do have a lot of tourists. Most of our tourists are not coming from Canada as much as people from downstate along the coast.”

Many of the inn’s guests have been affiliated with major construction in the area, such as the International Bridge project in Madawaska and a solar venture in Frenchville, Lerman said.

When the pandemic stalled travel and social interaction, most business sectors including hotels suffered. Ironically, the Hampton Inn in Presque Isle stayed about 40 or 50 percent full much of the time with essential workers, said General Manager Adam Cyr. But this summer the hotel was at full occupancy.

“In comparison to 2019, we’re up considerably. We’re more than recovered from the pandemic,” Cyr said.

The inn did see more Canadian guests this year, though its counterpart in Portland usually sees more. Many Canadian visitors are bound for shopping trips and the Portland area has a huge array of retail opportunities, Cyr said.