Forecast is sunny for tourism economy

It is troubling to watch Pfizer dismantle laboratories and offices, as the drug giant downsizes in southeastern Connecticut, continuing a withdrawal that started with its retreat from its office towers in New London and which now includes the demolition of buildings in Groton put up during many years of expansion.

The region’s casinos continue to struggle, not just with competition from the expanding footprint of gambling around the Northeast but also with an economy in which there seems to be less discretionary consumer spending for gaming.

And yet the summer of 2013 may signal a harbinger of some better things to come.

One important sector of the southeastern Connecticut economy — tourism — seems to be improving, despite the sometimes dreary weather and prolonged heat wave this summer.

Many businesses around Mystic report that they expect the summer’s receipts this year to be higher than last. That’s especially encouraging given all the construction turmoil in Mystic, including one long period when even the iconic drawbridge couldn’t open.
Some suggest that this summer’s crowds include people who are avoiding the storm damage from Hurricane Sandy at beach communities in New York and New Jersey. If that’s true, it’s a good chance for Connecticut to make them like the place and lure them back in the future.

But the numbers reported by tourist-related businesses seem to reflect more than the impact of one season’s weather patterns or hurricane-damage refugees, in as much as they parallel some other positive economic trends, like the improving housing market.

Even in the midst of declining gambling numbers, casino executives here highlight some bright spots in their earning reports and say spending on some non-gambling sectors is actually rising. Plans for new retail development at both casinos suggest the optimism that Connecticut casinos have a strategy to survive new competition from Rhode Island and Massachusetts, improving their appeal as full-service resort destinations.

Pfizer has long been a major engine of the regional economy, and, as it sputters, it is encouraging to know that another major employer, Electric Boat, sees a stable future of submarine contracts and rising employment. One of the great problems that surfaced in 2013 is that there are so many EB workers in New London they don’t have enough places to park.

But another principal leg of the economy is certainly tourism and reports that tourist-related businesses are having a good season indicates not only that the overall economy is improving but that the local brand has apparently survived the recession well.

The launch of the restored whaling ship Charles W. Morgan proves that Mystic Seaport can still pack them in and capture the attention of a wide audience. Just wait until next year, when a new voyage for the ship puts not just the Seaport but Mystic and southeastern Connecticut in a bright spotlight.

The development of a National Coast Guard Museum in New London is another part of the bright future of tourism that could be in store for the region.

Let’s hope that the summer of 2013 not only goes down as one of the hottest on record, but one in which this tourist-friendly part of Connecticut both shook off the recession’s doldrums and began planning for an ever brighter future, with new retail malls, improved museum attractions, even a new museum.

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