REGION — Tourism took a hit across America in its more populated areas amid the COVID-19 pandemic. New York City, for example, saw 43.7 million fewer visitors in 2020 — two-thirds less than usual. Overall, Maine tourism “dropped by about 27 percent” in 2020. This narrative does not stand true in Franklin County, however. The county saw an influx of visitors in 2020, according to the Maine Office of Tourism.

What we saw as a general trend is that some of the more rural counties such as Franklin … were actually seeing a higher percentage increase in visitation than some of the areas that you would typically think as the most popular tourist areas,” said Steve Lyons, director of the Maine Office of Tourism.

Though Lyons acknowledged that tourism rates in areas like Portland and Bar Harbor were higher, Franklin County saw a greater increase from previous years.

Franklin County is classified by the Office of Tourism as part of the Maine’s Lakes and Mountains Region. The Office of Tourism tracked the number of visitors through mobile phone data, and saw that more users were coming to Franklin and staying for longer periods of time.

Lyons said that the whole region benefited from the nature of traveling during the pandemic and that has stayed strong through 2021.

According to data collected by the Maine Office of Tourism, “restaurant and lodging taxable sales are up about … 11% between 2019 and 2021.”

The data also shows that “based upon the summer arrivals (June 1, 2020 – August 31, 2020) of mobile phones, Franklin County saw an increase of about 25% compared with 2019.”

Scott Lavertu, executive director of the Franklin Chamber of Commerce, said that Franklin County is “a gateway to the Western Maine mountains and all of the outside activities that come along with that” and was “a huge draw” for travelers amid pandemic restrictions. 

Lavertu said a number of campgrounds were sold out last summer. That includes Cathedral Pines Campground in Eustis, which Lavertu said has been sold out since mid May.

Travis Ferland at the Rangeley Inn said “there is more interest in remote areas and outdoor activities, so the pandemic has had a positive impact on our business.” Ferland also mentioned that visitors are staying for longer periods of time and are coming “during midweek periods” more than usual, which was attested by Lyons.

Nevertheless, Ferland said it has also been harder to operate “due to additional protocols” and a staffing shortage.

Lindsey Hopkins, who operates an Airbnb property in Fayette, said that she was “surprised by how lucrative [her business] was last year.”

It exceeded my expectations in terms of how much interest I got and how much I rented it, it’s on par with how it is this year,” Hopkins said.

Both Hopkins and Ferland also noted that business has stayed strong although restrictions have been lifted and traveling to more populated areas is back on.

While the area has seen more visitors and accommodations have been booked out in the county, other businesses that typically catered to adventurers visiting the region had a harder time, said Charlie Woodworth, director of Greater Franklin Development Council.

“[The pandemic] decimated the service industry that coexists because of tourism — your restaurants, your rental shops, any sort of store front that exists to support the tourism industry suffered,” Woodworth said. 

Woodworth was hesitant to say that Franklin County’s tourism industry benefited from the pandemic.

Some outdoor activities, yes they saw greater participation, but yes you’re paying to ski in an alpine area but you’re just getting out on a trail hiking, those are resources or activities that are free,” Woodworth said. 

Woodworth acknowledged, however, that the pandemic and its restrictions brought people to Franklin County that otherwise wouldn’t have visited.

Lavertu agreed that businesses have certainly suffered, but commended “the creativity of the folks here in Franklin County” who tried to take advantage of the wave of tourism.

The great thing of coming off of the last year and seeing an increase in our tourism traffic, people have had to modify the way that they’re doing business and really getting creative so that you’re catering to the increased traffic,” Lavertu said.

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