PORTLAND – The Labor Day holiday weekend brought a chill to the air as a subtle but sobering reminder that Maine’s summer tourist season is at an official end.

Maine Turnpike officials braced for a big southbound exodus on Monday, Labor Day. The bulk of the traffic was expected later in the day, with an estimated 180,000 vehicles expected to head on the toll highway south between noon and 6 p.m.

To say good-bye and as a gesture of thanks, the turnpike authority planned to hand out 20,000 red Maine pennants with a retro design during the holiday.

While the season was ending, Maine tourism officials said it’s still too early to compare hard numbers from this summer with others.

“There’s some areas that have done well, some areas that have not done well, some areas that have done OK,” said Nat Bowditch, assistant director for the state office of tourism.

“You can go up the coast and find some areas are doing well, down the road a bit they’re not doing so well. It’s really kind of quirky.”

Partial numbers are in.

The season started strong with total meals and lodging sales of $2.1 billion reported for June, but July and Augusta aren’t expected to keep that record-setting pace. The stretch of rainy weather in August didn’t help.

“Anecdotally, it seems that the people were here, but they weren’t spending as much and they may have been here for a shorter period of time,” he said. The number of motorists on the Maine Turnpike reached nearly 6.2 million in July, the highest ever recorded.

Maine tourism numbers have grown steadily for five years, said Bowditch. The industry brings more than $5 billion in gross receipts to the state and $340 million in taxes.

There is sunshine on the horizon. Bowditch said advance bookings for the fall season are “looking good.”

For June, the tourism office reports that statewide taxable lodging sales were up 14.7 percent, and the restaurant sector was up 6 percent over the same period last year.

One hotel owner sees a mix even within one region of the state.

Bob Smith said lodgings at his Saco Holiday Inn were up “significantly,” while at his high-end Sebasco Harbor Resort, business has been down compared to last summer.

“The south coast has held its own pretty well. The farther north you go is where you have the inconsistencies,” Smith said.

Maine’s summer season was ending on the cool side, with nighttime lows Saturday dipping into the 30s in Fryeburg and Sanford in southern Maine and Houlton and Caribou in the north, according to the National Weather Service.

Monday’s weather was expected to be sunny in central and southern areas with highs in the 70s in much of the state, then cooling off later in the day with a possibility of showers in the evening, forecasters said.

Northern Maine could see clouds and a few showers on Labor Day.

AP-ES-08-31-03 1519EDT

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