POLITICS AND OTHER MISTAKES – Tourist trap

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To hear the experts talk, you’d think reducing the state budget by up to $100 million is a task only slightly less difficult than walking into a ritzy ocean-side restaurant without a reservation on a tourist-clogged Saturday night in the summer and expecting to score a table by a window, along with complimentary hors d’oeuvres and a free bottle of the chef’s favorite wine, as well as therapeutic massages administered by attractive staff members at no additional cost.

It involves “extremely challenging issues,” according to what Republican state Sen. Richard Rosen, co-chairman of the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee, told the Bangor Daily News earlier this year.

Rosen wasn’t talking about the charge for those massages showing up on his credit card bill.

“It’s not going to be easy,” said Democratic state Rep. John Martin to the Associated Press. Martin is a member of the special committee looking for ways to streamline state government and reduce expenses.

He wasn’t complaining about being stuck at a table by the kitchen door with nothing but a carafe of a questionable house red.

“I will never say it will be easy,” Ryan Low, the former finance commissioner under Democratic Gov. John Baldacci and also a committee member, is quoted as saying in an AP article.

Low wasn’t referring to the refusal of the maitre d’ to comp him on the hors d’oeuvres.

This overwrought attempt to link the difficulties inherent in reducing state spending with the problems associated with operating in a tourism-dependent economy isn’t quite as far-fetched as it might seem. If the bungling budget balancers and purveyors of overpriced seafood would take an objective look at their mutual concerns, they could discover some common ground.

Each year, the state spends $9 million marketing itself to potential visitors around the northeast and Canada. That money comes from tax revenues, paid not only by tourists but also by people who actually live here. If it were removed from the budget, Rosen, Martin and Low would be a lot closer to covering impending deficits. And Maine’s restaurants, hotels, amusement parks and cute little shops full of moose and lobster paraphernalia wouldn’t have lost anything of value.

That’s because there’s no evidence the $9 million has any effect on the number of people who vacation in Maine.

In the past decade, the state has doubled its budget for tourism marketing. In the same period, the amount tourists spend in the state has barely increased at all. That’s strong evidence that advertising has almost nothing to do with how anyone makes the decision on where to spend those precious weeks of summer freedom.

The two factors that most influence vacation planning are simple and obvious: the economy and the weather. There’s nothing the state and all its cash (actually, your cash) can do about either one.

No matter how many TV spots Maine buys showing pristine lakes and rockbound coastline, it won’t matter if gasoline prices approach four bucks a gallon, unemployment hovers around 9 percent or the exchange rate makes the Canadian dollar look like Greek government bonds. The tourists will stay away.

If the price of filling the tank drops, employers start hiring and the loonie takes flight, flatlanders and French speakers will flock here to fatten up on Pier fries, clam chowder and medical marijuana diverted to the black market.

All the fancy websites and full-page newspaper ads a few million dollars can purchase won’t influence anyone to change their weekend plans if the forecast calls for driving rain and unseasonable temperatures. But if the sun shines and the Atlantic Ocean warms up enough to sustain life forms other than penguins and polar bears, places like Massachusetts, Quebec and New Brunswick will empty out as their populations head for Maine.

Tourism-related businesses can continue to print slick brochures (good for the paper industry) and buy radio spots (good for the radio industry). But if they insist on following the fruitless marketing methods the state has employed for the past decade, they should foot the bill themselves (an approach that’s been good for most other industries). Or the B&Bs, waterslides and art galleries specializing in paintings of waves breaking on stormy shores could opt for a commonsense approach, and forego the ads in favor of more competitive pricing and spruced up appearances (this has also been shown to be productive for most other industries).

Many in the tourism biz will howl that they’ve paid millions in taxes and therefore deserve to have the state subsidize their marketing. To them I say, ordinary workers have paid even more millions. In return, they’re getting deteriorating roads and decaying schools.

Let’s prioritize. Contrary to what the experts say, that would make balancing the state budget as easy as relaxing on the beach watching the tide slip away.

Vacation tips (no, I’m not going to North Korea again) and other comments may be emailed to aldiamon@herniahill.net.

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