Beachgoers enjoy the sand and ocean at Ogunquit Beach. Credit: Courtesy of D. Sullivan Photography via Ogunquit Chamber of Commerce

OGUNQUIT, Maine — Gary Latulippe beams as he talks about significantly higher advance reservations and higher deposits this tourism season than any time in the 19 years he has owned Studio East Motel.

Both of his motels — he also owns the Sea Chambers Motel near the ocean in Ogunquit — are busier at an earlier time in the season this year. They are booked at almost full occupancy into the fall in a strong recovery for a company that saw business almost grind to a halt during early COVID-19 restrictions.

But Latulippe worries about business from Canadians, which pre-pandemic made up 75 percent of his customers at Studio East. The Canadian-to-U.S. dollar exchange rate has been weak since the beginning of the year, with a Canadian dollar equaling 73 cents here. That difference is expected to dampen business along Maine’s southern coast in York County.

“That is going to be a factor,” said Latulippe, who speaks French and is of French-Canadian heritage. “Canadians are not fully returning yet since the border closure.”

He expects Canadian visitors to continue to come to Maine, but the high prices may have them making fewer return trips this year. Instead of visiting three times, they may only come once, he said. Meantime, visitors from other parts of the Northeast are helping make up the difference.

The U.S. reopened the Canadian border in November 2021 after shutting it for 19 months to help curtail COVID-19 transmission. That was a difficult time for businesses in Ogunquit, a seaside town of 1,577 year-round residents, and its neighbors, which rely heavily on Canadian tourism.

Benches along the Marginal Way path that overlooks the ocean in Ogunquit as the tourism season starts ramping up. Credit: Courtesy of photosbynoelle via Ogunquit Chamber of Commerce

Tourism is a major contributor to the economy in Maine, where the state tourism office reported about 15.4 million total visitors from everywhere in 2022. That was down slightly from the previous year, but Maine reported $8.6 billion in direct spending, up 10 percent, because tourists stayed longer and spent more. A bumper tourism season is expected this year.

But the Maine beaches region in York County has not yet seen Canadian visitors return to pre-pandemic levels. They made up 12 percent of visitors to the region in 2019 but only 7 percent last year, up from a scant 1 percent in 2021, when the border was closed, according to tourism office figures. Still, the figures are rising despite headwinds from currency rates.

“We’re starting to get back to where we were,” Kim Howard, executive director of the Old Orchard Beach Chamber of Commerce. The town has a year-round population of about 9,000.

Visitors throng to the pier at Old Orchard Beach. Tourism, which was off during the pandemic, is expected to get back to normal this summer. Credit: Courtesy of the Old Orchard Beach Chamber of Commerce

Over the course of a typical pre-pandemic year, some 30 percent of visitors to Old Orchard Beach were Canadian. The chamber has been getting about the same number of calls from interested tourists as it had last year, Howard said. She is cautiously optimistic about this tourism season, which lasts from May through as late as October.

Donna Lewis, who owns two gift shops and a restaurant in Ogunquit, was encouraged by the number of French-speaking visitors in town despite the rain over the May 22 Victoria Day long weekend.

Lewis, who has operated her businesses for 40 years, said they and other tourists were a welcome sight following the business and border closures she remembers early in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People are just glad to be out and about in a beautiful place, to walk the beach along Marginal Way,” she said.

Lewis owns the Revelations Gift Shop and Sea Bell Gallery in downtown Ogunquit and the Clay Hill Farm restaurant about two miles away in Cape Neddick. Judging from the pre-season traffic in town, she is optimistic that this tourism season will be better than last year.

Old Orchard Beach is seeing summer tourism return to normal. Credit: Courtesy of Old Orchard Beach Chamber of Commerce

So, too, is Carol Chiavetta, marketing director at the Ogunquit Playhouse, where ticket orders already are filling up seats. Normally there is a strong contingency of visitors from Canada. So far, preseason sales have mostly gone to Mainers taking a day trip to Ogunquit.

Long-time business people like Lewis know other factors can come into play during a tourism season, like a long spell of rain or colder than normal temperatures.

“I always say to people who ask how my season was, ‘Ask me in October,’” Lewis said.

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...