NEWRY – Most vacationers to Maine want an experience, like walking away with something different or learning a new skill or activity, according to Phil Savignano of the Maine Office of Tourism.

That’s what he told about 50 people this week in Newry at the Androscoggin River Watershed Council conference on outdoor recreation and tourism.

“They’re interested in remote and untouched destinations, being in the outdoors, enjoying sights, smells and sounds of nature, seeing wildlife species they have not seen before, and experiencing culture and history,” Savignano said.

According to Savignano, 80 percent of U.S. travelers highly value outstanding scenery, 73 percent place high importance on clean, unpolluted environment, and 63 percent enjoy a destination that preserves its natural, historic and cultural sites.

To create a quality experience, interpretive signs are the key.

“The worst thing you want to do is get tourists here and lose them before they spend their money,” he said.

Trails within Maine and the Androscoggin River Valley were also touted. However, to compete globally for tourism dollars and offer a world-class product, Maine needs to synchronize its collective efforts and invest millions of dollars into land, business and education, according to David Vail, a Bowdoin College professor of economics.

“Western Maine needs to think of itself as something bigger if we’re going to make it to the next level,” Vail said. “We live in an era of global travel and Internet connectivity … Western Maine is competing with the Rockies, Norwegian fjords and the Alps, all at the same time … We need to do things on a substantially bigger scale than we are now.”

He said that 90 percent, or 90 cents, of the tourist dollar goes to shopping, dining, lodging and transportation. The other 10 percent goes to everything else.

“On the coast, lobsters, lighthouses and L.L. Bean make it a world-class tourism destination. We have the raw material inland, but, in my own view, we aren’t there yet,” Vail said.

World-class to Vail means creating a 20 percent increase in overnight visits, or 300,000 visits.

“The things we’re doing now maintain market share, but I don’t see them increasing the markets we have. We need more first-time visitors from outside the Northeast. We need more coastal Mainers choosing the Maine woods for vacations. We need from $150 to $250 million more in direct tourist spending, and 2,000 to 3,000 tourism jobs … The key to livable wages are tourism jobs,” he said.

Getting there means creating large national park-like areas promoting recreation and heritage.

“There are 2 million plus people going to Acadia National Park, but if only 15 percent choose to extend their trip, that’s another 100,000 people going to the Maine woods … The land base is there, but we need to invest very substantially in green infrastructure … Small businesses really need some help,” Vail said.

He said the University of Minnesota took its agricultural extension service and created a tourism extension to help businesses.

“We need to improve the motivation and skills of our front-line workers in tourism. The turnover rate is high. The challenge is to turn more tourism jobs and skills into tourism careers. Bring training programs to the rural parts of the state and focus on service … These piecemeal (trail) initiatives have relatively low payoff unless they become part of the bigger picture,” Vail said.

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