Belfast, Maine, and Astoria, Ore., are each about 160 kilometers (about 100 miles) from a metropolitan center named Portland. They also topped the list in a 2009 study by the Canadian government of North American cities that have experienced hardship and turned themselves around through tourism.

The study was partly responsible for a visit this week by a group of Canadian federal and Nova Scotia provincial government officials, as well as business owners and tourism industry professionals from the province who came to see how they could improve the economic development of, as the report described it, “towns that did not give people a reason to travel to their area other than a ‘river runs through it,'” without succumbing to the twin pitfalls of gentrification and the low wages associated with tourism-based jobs.

In the case of Belfast, the study credits a number of community initiatives dating to the 1980s, including the farmers market, Friends of Belfast Parks, GreenStreets! and the Belfast Garden Club. There was also the $800,000 Community Development Block Grant in the 1990s that paid for upgrades to downtown sidewalks, and the arrival of MBNA.

The Belfast Bears in 2000 are given in the report as an example of the community’s turning to what had become one of its own natural resources: artists. The Belfast Poetry Festival, Friday Night Art Walks, the Belfast Historical Society’s Museum in the Streets, the Maine Celtic Celebration and Maine Heritage Festival all contributed to the city’s transformation from a rough factory town to a tourist-friendly and “culturally-cool” place.

The study specifically sought out towns that had faced either a rerouted highway or the loss of a major industry — Belfast has seen both — and draws parallels to Canadian towns facing similar problems: the Trans Canada Highway rerouted away from the downtown in Antigonish, or the collapse of industries in New Glasgow and Canso.

Though the report focuses on Belfast and Astoria, Astoria was actually ranked third, behind Rockland, Maine, making the group’s trip to the Midcoast all the more worthwhile.

On the afternoon of June 10, the group was at the summit of Mount Battie, overlooking, from a perch of almost 800 feet, the region they had come to study. After taking in the view, they retired to their tour bus to talk with Camden-Rockport-Lincolnville Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Dan Bookham, who looked suspiciously at a reporter boarding the bus.

“You’ll write about how we all get along, right?” he said, alluding to the low-grade antipathy between Camden and Belfast residents.

Each of the municipalities highlighted in the government study had a gentrified neighbor to compare itself to — Belfast to Camden; Astoria to Leavenworth, Wash. — but the visitors seemed less interested in the provincial differences in Midcoast Maine than the fact that Belfast, Camden and Rockland all seemed to be doing well in their own way.

Lisa MacIsaac, acting manager of Nova Scotia Tourism, Culture and Heritage’s Tourism Division, was inspired by a meeting earlier that day with Lorain Francis, director of Rockland Main Street Inc., the entity connecting the city with the statewide Main Street Maine program.

MacIsaac is based in Halifax, a city of 350,000, but she said there were plenty of towns like Rockland and Belfast within 20 minutes’ drive of the city, and while many towns in Nova Scotia have been able to benefit from tourism without sacrificing community, she said, there are many still languishing.

“It’s not an easy road. We’re competing on a global level,” she said.

The number of art galleries in Belfast had also made an impression on her, MacIsaac said. At the same time, she reserved some criticism for the city. “From a planning perspective, there really isn’t one — a development plan.”

Kelly Rose of the Waterfront Development Corporation, a nonprofit in Halifax that oversees four waterfront areas in the city, was on her first trip with the group. The boardwalk in Rockland had caught her eye, as had the public art installations of ECO-MOTION in Belfast, and Come Boating!, with which the group had done a short excursion the day before.

She had also taken note of the semicircle and star “stages” painted on the sidewalks in Belfast to indicate locations of street performers during Friday Night Art Walks.

“That’s something that could really work on the waterfront [in Halifax],” she said. “It’s such a simple concept, and if you try it and it doesn’t work, a can of paint is not that big an investment.”

Asked about low wages and gentrification, the two pitfalls noted in the government study, MacIsaac and Rose brought up Canada’s relatively high minimum wage — in Nova Scotia it’s $9.20 per hour.

MacIsaac said what’s happening in the Midcoast is in line with Nova Scotia’s four tourism “brand pillars.”

“Shaped by the sea, the spirit of the people,” she began, then paused. “Oh my God, I’m forgetting the other ones.” A moment later she finished what sounded like a slogan, though she said it wasn’t.

“Old world charm with a new world pulse,” she said.

Lloydette MacDonald, an economic development officer in the Cape Breton community of Louisbourg, was on her third such fact-finding trip. The others were to Charleston, S.C., and Newfoundland.

“Over the last 10 years, we’ve pretty much hit rock bottom as far as community pride and people being embarrassed about living in Louisbourg,” she said. The town is suffering, she said, in part because of the closure of the National Sea Products plant in the 1990s. “We had people 50, 60 years old going back to school to get a job,” she said.

The town is no stranger to tourism, but MacDonald said visitors mostly bypass the downtown, heading straight to the Fortress of Louisbourg, which is, according to Parks Canada, the largest reconstructed 18th century French fortified town in North America.

“We have the tourists,” she said. “No matter how we feel about it, people are going to come to the area. But how do we keep them there?”