Showing off the state at Maine Tourism Association conference

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LEWISTON — On the DIY Network’s “Maine Cabin Masters,” the crew does double duty bringing old camps back to life and giving a glimpse at the way life should be.  

“It doesn’t get lost on us how lucky we are and that we have a job to promote Maine as a state,” builder Chase Morrill said Friday during one of the keynotes at the Maine Tourism Association’s 97th annual meeting and awards luncheon at the Agora Grand.

The meeting was held in Lewiston for the first time.

Speakers talked about a year of challenges and success, of showing off the state and about Maine accents.

“My favorite part is when they have to subtitle Ryan,” Morrill joked about brother-in-law and co-star Ryan Eldridge.

U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a North Haven innkeeper and restaurateur when she’s not representing the first district in Congress, said she feels the same challenges as everyone else: Making money in a short summer season, keeping up with licensing requirements, finding enough staff.

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There’s also a matter of respect.

“People don’t always see tourism as a valued industry,” Pingree said. “What’s very true in Maine, where we pride ourselves as a natural resources-based state — hunting, fishing, the woods industries, a manufacturing state — as those things have been changing, sometimes they make people feel more grumpy about the tourism industry because they say, ‘We want to get back to manufacturing, those were real jobs,’ but so many facts and figures tell us otherwise. This industry is a major creator (of jobs) and an important source of income for the state.”

Tourism also draws future residents and entrepreneurs, she said.

According to the Maine Office of Tourism, more than 100,000 people worked in tourism in 2017 and tourists spent about $6 billion here.

While visits have been growing in Maine, up to 36.7 million last year, nationally that hasn’t been the case.

Keynote speaker Tori Barnes, senior vice president of government relations for the U.S. Travel Association, said since 2015, only two of the top 12 travel destinations have seen a decline in international visitors, the U.S. and Turkey.

Between 2015 and 2017, international visits to the U.S. were down 6 percent. They were up 21.2 percent in Canada, up 17.5 percent in the U.K.

“The U.S. is losing market share to the rest of the world,” Barnes said.

Overseas travelers stay an average of 18 nights and spend $4,400 more, according to Barnes.

“Unfortunately, it’s a challenging climate in Washington,” Pingree said. “Our rhetoric around immigration keeps people from visiting from other countries. I’m actually shocked to see the decline in numbers; that’s worse than I thought.”

Barnes encouraged the audience to remain engaged and keep up a warm, welcoming message.

Chris Fogg, CEO of the Maine Tourism Association, said helping businesses find more employees will be a primary focus of the coming year.

“We’ve seen tremendous growth the last 10 years, but that growth can’t continue unless we have the people we need to service them,” he said.

On the upside, visits to the organization’s website, MaineTourism.com, are up 100 percent over the same time last year.

“We were asked by the Maine Department of Transportation to take over the cleaning of the (state’s visitor center) bathrooms,” Fogg said. “First impressions matter.” And at the Kittery visitors’ center, “over 350 people have written very positive reviews of our bathrooms.”

The last to speak, the “Maine Cabin Masters” crew offered a behind-the-scenes look at filming the show, which is in its third season.

Ashley Morrill Eldridge, Chase’s sister, said it’s been interesting to watch the state on TV. Being so close to everything, “you forget how beautiful Maine is living here.”

“A lot of times, these places shouldn’t be fixed,” Ryan Eldridge said. “You’re saving memories, you can’t put a price on that.”

kskelton@sunjournal.com

Lois Simpson from the Maine Tourism Association chats with Karen Rose Brown from Visit New England at her trade show table at the 97th annual meeting and awards luncheon for the Maine Tourism Association at the Agora Grand in Lewiston on Friday. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

Stars of the DIY Network’s reality show “Maine Cabin Masters,” from left, Ryan Eldridge, Ashley Morrill Eldridge and Chase Morrill, stand outside the Agora Grand in Lewiston on Friday after giving a keynote at the Maine Tourism Association’s 97th annual meeting and awards luncheon. (Kathryn Skelton/Sun Journal)

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