KENNEBUNKPORT, Maine — The tourists were back in Vacationland this summer, with the typical scene in the heart of Kennebunkport earlier this month: People stocking up on salt water taffy, scarfing down lobster rolls, and zigzagging through snarled traffic in the town’s historic district.
Tammy Luba of Waterford, Pa., was among them, having just spent two weeks traveling Maine in a camper van: Bar Harbor, canoeing, a moose tour, goat yoga. It had been the trip of a lifetime, Luba said, with a few hitches.
“Everything closes at 8 o’clock,” she said. “And there’s been a lot of traffic.”
You hear that a lot up here lately, thanks to our current crazy-quilt economy, where little makes sense on paper right now.
At restaurants, parking lots don’t seem as full, yet wait times for tables are longer. Visitors are more likely to book last minute. Hotels are doing well, but restaurants are struggling to find workers and slashing hours to cope.
“We have hotels in one part of the state telling us they’re having incredible banner summers, and restaurants in that same area saying they can’t put together a staff to remain open,” said Matthew Lewis, chief executive of trade group Hospitality Maine. “And sometimes those calls come in the same day.”
So this summer has been a weird, wild, ride. Through May, Maine had the most robust recovery of tourism in the country this year, according to US Travel Association data, and spending in June was 6.9 percent ahead of 2019 levels. Yet Lewis hears every day from tourism-related businesses that are struggling, hard.
Maine has its mainstays — the lobster rolls, the craggy coves, the prismatic sunsets — and a sense that things here never really change. But this year, something is different. Summer is busy, but also unsettling. Hospitality businesses have had to contend with high gas prices, soaring food costs, and labor shortages fueled by the state’s unique demographic woes. Recession fears have everyone on edge. And there’s a sense, some say, that the last few years may have changed Maine permanently.
“There is no normal, there is no going back,” said Lewis. “It’s never going to look like it did before the pandemic.”
Pre-COVID, Vacationland was riding high. 2019 was Maine’s best tourism year ever. Then came 2020 — a wipeout — and 2021, when Mainers were just happy to welcome back visitors “from away,” as businesses got back on their feet.
2022 was supposed to be the summer when things were “normal” again.
But they’re not. And no one seems happy about it.
Industry insiders know to gird themselves for “Angry August,” a month when big crowds and high expectations can mean short fuses. This year, the frustration seems more pronounced. Earlier this year, 14 percent of visitors told the Maine Office of Tourism that customer service did not meet their expectations, a sizable jump from pre-COVID days. Some fear that the long lines and short staff might leave even more people less eager to return.
Still, people are coming. The Maine Turnpike reports traffic at pre-COVID levels for July and August. Tony Cameron, who heads the Maine Tourism Association, predicts a new record for revenue. But those numbers, he said, are deceptive.
“That doesn’t mean that the bottom line for the businesses is that much greater,” he said. “In some cases those thin margins are even narrower.”
Just ask Kylie Raymond, co-owner of the Pilot House and the Spirit of Massachusetts floating restaurant in Kennebunkport.
“This year has been the toughest year,” she said during a break from one of the double shifts she’s been working six days a week. The Pilot House has only three kitchen staff to handle 800 seatings daily, so her parents, who retired after owning both places for three decades, are back pulling shifts in the kitchen. Raymond used to stay open late for locals who work in the industry; now she closes at 9 p.m.
“I feel bad for people coming into town that can’t get food after 9 aside from Domino’s,” she said, and worries that might keep people from coming back next year. “Hopefully, we don’t lose people, you know?”
Up and down the coast, it’s a similar story: Dinner in Portland? Book two weeks out. A table in Wells is a two-hour wait. Traffic won’t let up in Ogunquit and Bar Harbor is overrun. The turnpike can’t find workers for its rest areas, while many restaurants are cutting back days and hours for lack of staff.
Or closing up entirely. After 29 years in business, Kerry Altiero decided to shutter his Rockland mainstay Cafe Miranda this summer when he couldn’t find staff to open more than three days a week. Before COVID, the cafe was open seven days a week; now, he — and the Maine hospitality industry — are at a breaking point.
“There will be buckets of keys from my colleagues on bankers’ desks come the fall,” he lamented.
There are many factors, but staffing is the biggest, due in large part to Maine’s demographics. The state always had a large seasonal workforce. But Maine is also the oldest state in the country, meaning there aren’t enough younger people to accommodate seasonal demand.
Then there’s the housing crisis.
During the pandemic, out-of-towners flocked to Maine to work remotely, scooping up second homes and rental units. In 2021, the Maine Association of Realtors saw more sales than in any year since record-keeping began in 1998, and the median sales price jumped 17 percent.
“Maine quickly became a suburb of Boston, New York, and New Jersey,” said real estate agent Dana Curtis.
That means seasonal workers have fewer places to live. Rents have jumped 20 to 30 percent over the past two years, Curtis said. Lewis said knows of people who moved to Maine to take a hospitality job, only to “go back to their boss, and say, ‘I can’t find suitable accommodation and I’m going back to where I came from.’ ”
All those factors are making it hard for hospitality workers such as 26-year-old Emma Couture, who recently returned to Maine after two years in Pittsburgh. In that time, Portland rents had shot up — she used to pay $675 for a room, now rates start at $1,000 — so she spent eight months living in her parents’ basement. She found work as a nanny, but lost her parents’ health insurance when she turned 26, and grew so frustrated during her housing search that she contemplated living in her car.
“Everything has turned into Airbnbs and seasonal rentals,” she said. “And the apartments that were affordable got gobbled up by millionaires who don’t live here.”
Couture finally found an apartment, but it’s 40 minutes from Portland. And while she’s eager to work, she wants a full-time job, not a seasonal gig. So she has been applying for dishwashing and back bar positions, but struggled to get the attention of overstretched managers.
“I feel like I’m going to be broke soon,” she said.
In the meantime, the tourists are here and some admit feeling slightly shortchanged too.
Kate Shields has been visiting Maine for years, but this summer found higher prices and spotty service.
“It’s $33.95 for a lobster roll box,” Shields said. “It’s totally worth every blessed cent, but a noticeable increase.”
Shields plans to return next summer. But she offered advice for people who might be making their first post-COVID visit.
“You can be very happy to be back,” she said, “but you better temper your expectations.”