Maine’s Native American Tribes Plan for Tourism

Strategy: Collaborate in New Ways, Enhance Your Product

Type of attraction: Tourism Organization

Summary: Since the 19th century, an important part of the economy of Maine’s four Native American tribes – Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Micmac and Maliseet – has been selling beautiful, handmade crafts.

Since the 19th century, an important part of the economy of Maine’s four Native American tribes – Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Micmac and Maliseet – has been selling beautiful, handmade crafts. Although some crafts are sold in retail outlets across the state, there is no organized effort to sell the tribe members’ ware. And currently there are also no plans for attracting visitors who might want to travel to a tribal community, visit with the Native American craftspeople and learn more about the history and culture of Maine’s Native American tribes. Adding to the challenge is the location of the tribes’ communities in remote and economically distressed parts of the state. As Donna Loring, Wabanaki tourism coordinator for Four Directions Development Corporation noted: “We have been in an economic downturn for centuries!”

Four Directions is a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) formed in 2001 with housing and business development programs – and most recently the addition of a cultural tourism program. In 2009, the Four Directions Development Corporation set out to make cultural tourism an important part of the tribes’ economy.

“If you want to buy something - say a basket – you would have to know somebody or ask who is selling baskets and get pointed in that direction,” says Loring. “The situation we face is there is no infrastructure. One community has a restaurant, but there are no hotels, restaurants, gas stations – nothing. But we knew our tribes’ culture and heritage was a niche that would interest tourists.”

Cultural tourism plans focus on two key areas: development of the Wabanaki Cultural Tourism Center and creation of the Wabanaki Trail. In 2009, with a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Four Directions began a two-year planning process for the center. “The Wabanaki Cultural Tourism Center will be a world class resort and training center with a mission to assist Maine tribes in creating tourism and hospitality infrastructures within their communities,” says Loring.

The concept includes a resort hotel and cultural center which will provide training in business development, hospitality and culinary arts. The resort will be designed to attract high-end customers and international visitors who plan their vacations around learning experiences. To develop the cultural center, organizers will document stories from each community and create exhibits and shops representing each tribe in the center.

The center will serve as a location where visitors can learn about each tribe’s tradition and culture and then be encouraged to visit the tribes’ communities. Communities would be eligible for loans and technical assistance from Four Directions to help develop their tourism business.

“This training will allow Native people to start sustainable and successful businesses,” says Loring. “The end result will be a solid infrastructure to capture more community and tourists dollars. Native artists and crafts people who make baskets, create works of art in various mediums such as wood, beads, drawing, photography and jewelry will have outlets for their work.”

The second component of the plan is the Wabanaki Trail which will be a feature of www.fourdirectionsmaine.org. To develop the trail, organizers will identify all tribal crafts people and artisans and interview them about their history and their products. The site will include information on how to visit the tribes’ communities. Purchases will also be available from the website or directly from artisans. 

As the planning process wraps up in 2010, an advisory task force, including experts from the tribes, banking, the hotel industry and others, are reviewing the studies’ recommendations. The next step will be to develop a timeline for implementation.

“It has taken four years to get everyone on board and two years for the planning process,” Loring says. “We have had good involvement including letters of support from all of the tribes and participation on design team and task forces.”

For more information, visit www.fourdirectionsmaine.org; contact Donna Loring, Wabanaki Tourism Coordinator, dloring@fourdirectionsmaine.org; 207-866-6576.