Tourism Strategy for the Maine Woods: A Big Push to World Class

(Two-Minute Read)

Policy in Brief:

David Vail, professor of economics and former director of environmental studies at Bowdoin College, argues that the North Maine Woods’ current mix of natural, cultural, and hospitality assets are not sufficiently unique, outstanding, or networked to draw in large numbers of new overnight visitors making it a world class travel destination. Through examples of promising new endeavors, he hints at the possibilities for the region if there is a coordinated big push to make the North Woods world class.

Fascinating Features:

A major reason why tourism needs to be grown and promoted in the rim counties is because rural interior Maine has not shared in coastal Maine’s recent prosperity.


Despite blossoming government, private, and non-profit tourism initiatives it seems unlikely that without a “big push” strategy new tourist ventures in the Maine Woods are too fragments and too limited in scope to propel the Northern Forest region into a world-class level that the State Planning Office envisions.

Indeed, only the Moosehead Lake region and snowmobiling draws large numbers of high-spending overnight visitors. Even so, none of Maine’s top 12 tourism destinations are located in the North Woods.

What Will Define the North Woods as World Class?:

When it attracts 300,000 marketable overnight visitors yearly.

When these visitors spend 150 to 220 million dollars supporting several thousand full-time equivalent jobs. This would be a 20% increase to interior Maine’s overnight visitor economy. (Local indirect spending will amplify these magnitudes.)

When the North Woods draws more tourists year round with a large increase in the summer season.

There are four core challenges to tourism in Maine’s North Woods:

  1. Maine faces stagnant or declining participation in traditional recreational activities. These include hunting, fishing, camping, whitewater rafting, and alpine skiing. Snowmobiling, despite being a growth industry faces challenges of increased gasoline prices and prospective decrease in snow cover due to climate change.
  2. The North Woods faces strong competition from other tourist markets, including coastal Maine, who are increasing product quality, branding their destinations, an launching successful marketing campaigns forcing rural Maine to compete with true world-class destinations.
  3. The changes in land ownership in the North Woods threatens public access and outdoor recreation opportunities. However, almost 3 million acres have been acquired by the public or NGOs making these protected lands resemble world-class destinations.
  4. The remoteness of the North Woods, far away from interstate highways, major metropolitan centers, and commercial airports limit visitors to personal vehicle travel. In an age of uncertain gasoline prices Northern Maine’s distance becomes a liability.


Nature in all its beauty and diversity will continue to be the Maine Woods’ prime tourist draw. The core strategic challenge is to weave dispersed natural attractions into a cohesive whole renowned for outstanding recreational experiences.

These natural assets are necessary but not sufficient to make rural Maine world-class as experiential tourists demand more than rustic adventures. They additionally want high-quality attractions including a rich heritage, contemporary culture, and top-notch dining and lodging. For Maine’s Woods to become world-class these features need to be branded, expanded, and upgraded with a strategic master plan.

David VailDavid Vail is is Adams Catlin Professor of Economics emeritus at Bowdoin College. He serves on the Maine Woods Consortium steering committee and is a consultant to the Appalachian Mountain Club.

Dig Deeper:

Vail, David. “Tourism Strategy for the Maine Woods: A Big Push to World Class.” Maine Policy Review 16.2 (2007) : 104 -115. (11 pages, 8-minute read)

From MPR’s Archive:

MacDonald, Brooke S., Lydia R. Horne, Sandra De Urioste-Stone, Jane E. Haskell, and Aaron Weiskittel. “Collaborative Leadership Is Key for Maine’s Forest Products Industry.” Maine Policy Review 27.1 (2018) : 90 -98.

Matsuura, Ryunosuke, Sahan T. Dissanayake, and Andrew G. Meyer. “The Proposed Park in Maine’s North Woods: Preferences of Out-of-State Visitors.” Maine Policy Review 25.1 (2016) : 54 -62.

Vail, David, and Harold Daniel. “Consumer Support for a Maine Woods Tourism Quality Label.” Maine Policy Review 21.2 (2012) : 68 -80.

Related Resources:

FERMATA, Inc., “Executive Summary : Strategic Plan for Implementing the Maine Nature Tourism Initiative, September 2005” (2005). Economic and Community Development Documents. 171.

FutureIQ. “Future of Tourism: The Maine Woods Part II: Potential Scenarios & Impacts.” December 2018.

Risitano, Marcello. “The Role of Destination Branding in the Tourism Stakeholders System: The Campi Flegrei Case.”