by Costas Christ
What do Moosehead Lake and North Aberdeen, Scotland, have in common? Local communities and conservation groups in both places are working hard to get tourism development right for the economy and the environment. That means resisting overblown and poorly conceived tourism projects by large corporations intent, it seems, on playing on economic fears in a down economy to get zoning approval to carve up wilderness and sell it to the highest bidder.
Plum Creek has drawn a line in the sand saying it will make no other changes to its plan for more than 2,000 resort and housing “units” (as of yet these units remain undefined — are they condos, villas, trophy homes or hotel rooms?) spread out across more than 18,000 acres of Maine’s north woods around Moosehead Lake. Plum Creek has come across at times as if it were a community organization focused on helping the locals. But let’s make no mistake: Plum Creek reports to its shareholders who are looking to increase profits at a time when the company’s timber holdings are no longer yielding the income they once enjoyed. This is why Plum Creek transformed itself from a timber company into one of the largest real estate corporations in North America.
Across the Atlantic on the coast of Scotland, another real estate giant is trying to get zoning approval for tourism development cloaked in language about helping the local economy. None other than Donald Trump is seeking zoning approval for a 450-room resort (by the way, smaller than Plum Creek’s proposed 800 units at Moose Mountain), a golf course, 35 golf villas, 950 holiday homes, and accommodation for 450 staff. Trump recently made the case during public testimony in Scotland that he should be granted permission to build on fragile sand dunes that are a national designated Site of Special Scientific Interest and are home to thousands of migrating birds and have been a community recreational resource for generations.
Trump’s approach seems bent on scaring local communities in Scotland to support his plan by saying that if he does not get his way, he will take his economic investment elsewhere (where it will be appreciated, no doubt) and locals in Scotland will suffer the economic consequences. Hard tactics for troubled economic times. Project opponents in both Maine and Scotland have sought compromises in these two very different yet similar cases, but bottom-line issues, such as not building on the wild dunes of Scotland or not putting a 400-room resort in Lily Bay on Moosehead Lake’s “wild side,” have been met with firm resistance by both of these powerful real estate corporations.
In Plum Creek’s case, it insists that building a large resort on Lily Bay is essential to its plan. But in my 20 years of working in the nature tourism industry as an adviser to governments, businesses, tourism development corporations and conservation organizations in the U.S. and around the world, Plum Creek’s assertion that two large resorts on opposite sides of Moosehead Lake are “essential” defies logic. Even in Lake George, N.Y., where I recently visited, they realized that building resorts on one side of Lake George and keeping the other side more wild and protected was a smart move for both the tourism economy and for the environment.
Since Plum Creek’s proposal already includes an 800-room resort on Moose Mountain, it would be better for the company to show its track record for economic success there first before being given approval for a second oversized resort on Lily Bay. There is no reason Plum Creek needs to have its plan approved all at once — unless it fears that if the results of this proposed development fall short of its economic promises to locals, it will never get zoning approval later to also convert Lily Bay into more real estate development.
Let’s all welcome Plum Creek’s desire to invest in Maine’s rural communities around Moosehead, but only with a more sensible tourism development plan. At a time when other forward-thinking tourism destinations in the U.S. are aligning with the World Travel and Tourism Council’s Blueprint for New Tourism that calls for a sustainable tourism approach that supports the protection of cultural and natural heritage and provides direct benefits to local people, granting approval to Plum Creek to build on Lily Bay is a mistake that Maine cannot afford.
We need best practice models for tourism in our state, not case studies of tourism development gone wrong. A second large resort on Lily Bay in Plum Creek’s plan represents the latter.
Costas Christ of Brooksville is global travel editor for National Geographic Adventure Magazine and chairman of the World Travel and Tourism Council — Tourism for Tomorrow Awards.