PORTLAND (AP) – Cruise ship passengers who visit Maine ports this year will leave with more than just memories of the state’s rocky coast. They’ll leave with vouchers good for a free night of lodging on a return visit.

The program, called FreeStayMaine, will give out 100,000 vouchers through mid-October. Organizers will then track the cards to see where they’re being redeemed and where the travelers are coming from.

The program aims to give a boost to tourism, which is the state’s largest industry but has been relatively flat for five years. It represents a nontraditional way to draw new and repeat visitors to the state.

A 2002 survey of Bar Harbor cruise ship passengers shows that they typically have above-average incomes and come from more than 1,200 miles away, which is beyond Maine’s core tourism promotion efforts in New England and New York.

“We’re getting passengers and tourists from nontraditional market areas, so we want them to come back,” said Amy Powers, director of CruiseMaine, the coalition helping to spearhead the program.

FreeStayMaine is supported by the Maine Port Authority and a variety of partners that include state and regional tourism agencies in Maine. It is modeled after a voucher program called Freestay Caribbean and is expected to run for at least three years.

The program calls for cruise ship passengers to receive vouchers, which look like Maine license plates, that can be redeemed for a free night of lodging at participating businesses. Passengers can research the program at the www.freestaymaine.com Internet site.

Each voucher is numbered so it can be traced, allowing organizers to learn more about who is responding. Guests will present their vouchers when they check in at a participating hotel, and the owner must report the booking to the Maine Office of Tourism.

Vaughn Stinson, executive director of the Maine Tourism Association, said FreeStayMaine could entice cruise ship passengers to return to Maine and venture inland, where tourism businesses have a harder time attracting customers.

“This gives us an opportunity to get in front of a very affluent group of people,” he said.

A quarterly tally will be prepared by Todd Gabe, an associate professor at the University of Maine who has been studying the economic impact of cruise ships.

The information will take time to collect, Gabe said, because some people may check out the Web site when they return home while others may file away the information for next year.

“Given that the majority of ships come in the fall, we’re expecting people to book trips for next summer,” he said.

Maine’s 2006 cruise ship season begins Monday, when the 1,316-passenger Maasdam visits Bar Harbor.

For the year, CruiseMaine expects 83 cruise ships with more than 201,000 passengers and crew to visit Bar Harbor, and 28 ships with more than 46,000 passengers and crew to stop in Portland.

An economic impact study of cruise ship spending in Bar Harbor and Portland found that spending by passengers and crew generated $13.7 million in Bar Harbor and $6.7 million in Portland last year.

The study was released last week by the University of Maine and the state’s Center for Tourism Research and Outreach.

AP-ES-05-02-06 1316EDT

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.