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Aroostook County braces for a summer tourism season full of uncertainty

The northern end of Route 1 in Fort Kent, Maine.
Joe Shlabotnik
The northern end of Route 1 in Fort Kent, Maine.

With gas prices at record highs, Aroostook County's tourism industry isn't quite sure what to expect for the summer season.

Aroostook County is a drive destination for the vast majority of visitors from Canada and the United States, and this will be the first full summer in two years with no COVID restrictions on cross border travel.

The most recent federal data available show the number of people coming to Aroostook County land ports of entry more than doubled between March and April, when more pandemic restrictions lifted at Canada's borders.

Jacob Pelkey, tourism developer for the Northern Maine Development Corporation and Aroostook County Tourism, says the region is seeing a steady number of Canadian visitors now.

"Those who were traveling across the border, I would I say at this point they've at least been over the border if not once, maybe twice," he said. "What we're seeing is that they're coming over to restaurants and they're coming shopping. So when we go and pull into Walmart we're seeing a lot more of those New Brunswick and Quebec license plates than we have in the past."

Many visitors come to Aroostook County to visit family members during the summer, Pelkey said, but some may shorten their stay once they get there.

"With the prices of gas this year, they might choose just taking that trip one time instead of coming maybe for a full week and the long weekend," he said. "Maybe they're just going to choose one week or the long weekend at this time. It's really hard to say."

Even with the price of gas, Tony Cameron, chief executive officer of the Maine Tourism Association, said the demand for travel this summer is high.

"Especially if they're in New England or Mid-Atlantic region, spending $100-200 more on gas doesn't necessarily stop somebody from taking their trip," Cameron said. "It may change their spending habits once they're in markets, whether they do less shopping or maybe go out to dinner one less time. Those are some of the traditional trends that we've seen previously when gas prices get high."

More people visited Aroostook County this past winter compared to last year, when warm temperatures cut snowmobile season to about six weeks.

But attendance was down at a few canoe races in the County this spring as compared to previous years, and Pelkey said high gas prices could have been the reason.

If and when visitors do arrive this season, they might see that a few long-time establishments are gone. Pelkey says eight restaurants in Presque Isle alone have closed since the pandemic.