Extending a welcome mat to tourists

With its broad mix of beaches, casinos, historic villages, museums and recreational opportunities ranging from sailing to fishing to hiking, southeastern Connecticut is the crown jewel of the state's tourism market, relying most heavily on an influx of visitors to support the local economy.

This newspaper therefore is pleased the state is preparing to spend $3.4 million in the second phase of Connecticut's "Still Revolutionary" tourism campaign that will highlight, among other attractions, such major destinations as Mystic Aquarium, Mystic Seaport, Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun.

We especially appreciate Connecticut Tourism Director Randy Fiveash's marketing approach that focuses on seeming contrasts -"historic" and "prehistoric," "cool" and "hot," "soothing and stimulating," "outdoors and indoors" and "old and new"- that perfectly reflect this region's wide range of attributes. He and other officials outlined the campaign Thursday at the opening of the Connecticut Conference on Tourism at the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford.

Finally, the state is getting the message: You need to spend money to make money. Only a few years ago the state, in a shortsighted move, trimmed its tourism marketing budget and the number of visitors declined proportionately.

The state expects to spend a total of $9.5 million for tourism this fiscal year and $12 million in each of the next two years. Last year alone officials estimate the "Still Revolutionary" campaign generated $219 million in tourism spending.

Spending on tourism "has paid enormous dividends," Tony Sheridan, president and chief executive of the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut, said Friday. While pleased with the campaign he urged state legislators to increase the $12 million annual installments to an original plan to spend $15 million each year.

We share this view; it would be money well spent.

Thursday's announcement is especially timely as the busiest time of the travel season approaches, with a veritable cornucopia of fairs, festivals and other special events scheduled this spring and into the upcoming summer and fall.

The seaport, for instance, is preparing for a banner event in coming weeks: the relaunch of the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan and its first journey in almost a century.

After six years of painstaking restoration, the world's last surviving wooden whaling ship is scheduled to leave Mystic for New London on May 17. There, over the next month, it will go on sail training cruises and complete its rigging. The 19th-century vessel will also be open to the public May 24, 25, 31 and June 1 before embarking on a two-month tour of historic New England ports.

The aquarium also is expecting a big summer, buoyed by Thursday's news that it has received the National Medal for Museum and Library Service - the country's only aquarium or zoo chosen for the honor this year. First Lady Michelle Obama is scheduled to present the medal to aquarium officials on May 8 at the White House.

The region's two other major attractions, Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun, will need to reverse revenue losses caused by increased competition in neighboring states. The state campaign may help attract more visitors, but the casinos recognize they no longer can rely on gamblers as their main source of income, and will have to continue building up live entertainment, dining and shopping.

While the state campaign understandably focuses on such major attractions we encourage officials not to lose sight that Connecticut in general and this region in particular has considerable appeal for those simply looking to get away for a few days of walking on a beach, kayaking on a lake, hiking through the woods, bicycling on country roads lined with stone walls, poking through an art gallery, shopping for antiques, sampling vintages at a vineyard or visiting a farm.

For many visitors - and residents - these comprise the essence of southeastern Connecticut.

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