Summer tourists help fuel economy

A successful summer tourist season is vitally important to the struggling economy of southeastern Connecticut, that is why it is so important that the state continues to support promotion of the industry and that all oars pull in the same direction.

This past week the Greater Mystic Visitors Bureau (GMVB), a nonprofit, business-funded organization, announced enhancements to its www.mystic.org website. The website introduces many prospective visitors to our region. Last season saw the introduction of a booking engine, allowing people to make reservations at a hotel without leaving the website. This year sees the addition of a format geared for use on cell phones and tablets. The importance of capitalizing on these mobile devices to drive business is becoming critically important.

Set aside, at least for now, are past disagreements over how best to grow tourism in eastern Connecticut. Sharing in the production of the Mystic.org website with the GMVB is the state-funded Eastern Regional Tourism District.

Two years ago Tony Sheridan, who sees double duty as both the president of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut and chairman of the GMVB, was questioning the need for the state's three tourism districts, including the Eastern Regional district. Mr. Sheridan, in an economic report he helped prepare for the governor in 2011, pondered whether the state, working directly with local, private tourism-promotion groups, might prove more effective than funding district tourism offices. At one point Gov. Dannel P. Malloy adopted the idea, proposing to eliminate funding for the districts. The idea proved controversial, however, and lawmakers restored the funding.

A pragmatist, perhaps from his past years of running Waterford as its first selectman, Mr. Sheridan showed no interest in reviving the prior debate when he met with The Day recently. The important point, he said, is that all parties are working together in their respective roles.

Glad to hear it.

To get people to the website, and eventually to the region's attractions, takes advertising. The GMVB plans to spend $170,000 on a radio and web advertising campaign targeting several population centers, including Rhode Island, New York, Springfield and Worcester, Mass. The bureau is seeking about $300,000 in state matching aid to enhance the campaign.

The plan is being coordinated to build upon the state's "Still Revolutionary" marketing campaign, with the legislature having set aside $11.5 million this year to promote not only tourism in the state, but attract businesses. While this is down from the $15 million state commitment a year ago, it is still a substantial investment. It is the kind of private-public partnership vitally important to get Connecticut's economy turned in the right direction.

The efforts are paying off. Visits to the Mystic.org site are up 18 percent year over year, and up 60 percent since its launching in June 2010. In 2012 there were 50,000 referrals from Mystic.org to bed & breakfasts, hotels and campgrounds in the area.

It is hard to overstate the importance of tourism to the economy. It can be expected to generate between $1 billion to $1.2 billion in state and local tax revenue this year and an estimated $12 billion in Connecticut economic activity. The leisure and hospitality sector was the only major Connecticut industry to experience faster employment growth in 2012 than in 2011, up nearly 4 percent.

No one would argue an entire economy can be built on tourism - the jobs are generally not high paying and typically supplement family income, not serve as its foundation - but its role is significant and deserves the attention it is getting.

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