For the first time in more than a year, all U.S. residents soon will be allowed unrestricted travel to Maine, offering a likely boost to the state’s recovering tourism industry.
Starting Saturday, visitors to Maine will be exempt from obtaining a recent negative COVID-19 test or quarantining for 10 days upon arriving in the state. Visitors from Vermont and New Hampshire have been allowed unrestricted travel to Maine since last spring, and Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut were added to the list in March.
No visitor from any U.S. state will be subject to travel restrictions, Dr. Nirav Shah, director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said this week. That could change if hotspots for COVID-19 variants develop in parts of the country.
“In its evaluation, Maine CDC is primarily focused on the prevalence of highly contagious COVID-19 variants from other states, which can spread more easily and, in some cases, be more deadly,” said Jackie Farwell, spokesperson for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services.
The state’s relaxed travel rules are a 180-degree turn from restrictions imposed during the first wave of infections last year. Maine only opened unrestricted, nonessential travel from New York, New Jersey and Connecticut in early July, and from Massachusetts – one of Maine’s biggest tourism markets – in September.
Those states were placed back on the restricted list in November, after COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths skyrocketed across the region.
Testing and quarantine requirements were fiercely opposed by hospitality and tourism businesses in Maine. The industry pushed, in vain, to get the rules relaxed early last summer, arguing they would damage businesses and Maine’s reputation as a tourism friendly state.
This year’s changes are a welcome shift, said Eben Salvatore, director of operations for Bar Harbor Resorts, which owns three hotels in the popular summer tourist destination.
“It was all we ever wanted – we just wanted our visitors to feel welcome and travel freely and act safely,” Salvatore said. “We are looking forward to a really good bounce-back year that we desperately need.”
The Bar Harbor region doesn’t get much in-state travel and had no measurable business last summer until almost July, Salvatore said. Revenue at the resort’s properties was down at least 30 percent from 2019. Some businesses, such as tour operators, saw revenue decline by 85 percent or more, he said.
Based on hotel bookings so far, this year will be the complete opposite.
“It will be abnormally busy,” Salvatore said. “We are comparing our numbers to 2019 – all those numbers are substantially higher than that year.”
In another major shift, small cruise ships will arrive on Maine shores this spring after a one-year hiatus.
American Cruise Lines’ Independence, with a maximum of 96 passengers, will start sailing in late May, and American Constitution, with up to 175 passengers, will embark in mid-June.
The cruise lines’ protocols have been fully vetted by the Maine CDC, and all passengers are required to be fully vaccinated, at least at first, the cruise operator said in a news release. Large and medium ships remain on hold while the U.S. CDC comes up with technical instructions, it said.
“We know the pandemic is still with us, but with careful planning, alongside increasing rates of vaccination across the country and here in Maine, we are pleased to add these small domestic ships back into the mix for our summer season,” CruiseMaine Director Sarah Fink said in a statement.
Maine’s relaxed travel standards and new summertime nonstop flights to Portland from the South and Midwest might help bring in first-time tourists, but it is more likely the state will retain its core tourism markets in New England and the Northeast.
Maine Tourism Association CEO Tony Cameron said early indications are that most visitors to Maine this summer will be coming by car, as is the norm.
“People are still hesitant to get on planes,” he said.
Dropping travel restrictions removes a huge impediment to the state’s tourism industry, but it is not the only pandemic-era stumbling block, Cameron added.
Canadian tourists, who made up around 17 percent of visitors to Maine in 2019, are still barred from entering the country freely. The cruise ship and tour bus industries aren’t likely to fully recover in 2021 either, Cameron said.
Occupancy limits are due to be relaxed in late May, but that may not offer as much flexibility as it would appear to at first glance, he said.
Outdoor occupancy limits are supposed to increase from 75 percent capacity to 100 percent on May 24. Indoor gathering capacity will go from 50 percent to 75 percent under the state’s reopening plan.
But establishments still have to adhere to 6-foot physical distancing requirements and other restrictions that make the actual occupancy limits lower than indicated by the reopening plan, Cameron said.
For instance, Hadlock Field, where the Portland Sea Dogs play, can only sell around 2,000 tickets per game to stay in compliance, less than half their typical game attendance in 2019.
Other states, including Vermont, have laid out a timeline of when they will relax restrictions, depending on vaccination rates. Cameron hopes Maine follows suit.
“Some aspects of the industry will struggle – anything that has capacity limits, those are still restrictive, they are not going to come back until at least later this summer,” he said. “We are trying to make sure those businesses can bear another year of not opening or running at very limited capacity.”