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Amid signs that travelers are loosening the purse strings, tourism operators in the region are poised for a third straight "up" season this summer.
Not even the prospect of $4-a-gallon gasoline is expected to spoil the party.
"Indications are that the season's off to a really good start," Ed Dombroskas, executive director of the Eastern Regional Tourism District, said this week. "Assuming everything holds, this will be another growth year."
One of the state's leading boosters, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, visited the area Thursday, stopping at the Submarine Force Museum in Groton and at New London's Ocean Beach Park, where he touted his administration's commitment to promoting tourism.
"Southeastern Connecticut is a major beneficiary of our tourism advertising," Malloy said. "Until I became governor, the state was not advertising, was not participating with the other New England states, and what we have seen is advertising does have an impact, it drives a crowd attraction, it lifts overnight stays and meals at restaurants and people going to the dairy bar."
Malloy said the state's advertising campaigns have more than paid for themselves.
"If you put tourism and culture together, (they account for) about one out of every 10 jobs in the state," he said. "Those two things are linked; a lot of our attractions are cultural attractions, whether they're museums or performing theaters and that sort of thing."
Dombroskas said overnight stays at hotels and inns, advance bookings and attendance at eastern Connecticut attractions are at higher levels than they were at the same time last year. About two weeks ago, when summer weather emerged, "it just exploded," he said.
Travel during the Fourth of July holiday, a period that began Wednesday and continues through Sunday, will surpass last year's volumes, particularly in New England, according to AAA Southern New England, which projects a 2.5 percent increase in the number of travelers taking to the roadways and the skies.
Relevant indicators compiled by the U.S. Department of Commerce, the state Office of Tourism and other sources all point to a strong tourism year.
"When you take them all together, we think you're looking at 5 to 8 percent growth this year over last year, and that's on top of two previous years of growth," Dombroskas said. "Right now, we've pretty much climbed out of the hole dug in 2008 and 2009, when we lost 10 to 15 percent of our business."
The tourism district, which promotes 42 towns in roughly the eastern half of the state, has been focusing on the region's quaintness and accessibility, qualities that research shows out-of-state visitors value. While the state's tourism campaign targets families with incomes of $100,000 and more, the district has found that most families that visit eastern Connecticut have incomes of about $80,000. But, Dombroskas said, those with lesser incomes tend to make more frequent visits.
"Research shows they're spending less money, but coming more often, which is a net gain," he said.
Tourism officials have also learned that nearly half of the out-of-state parties that visit the region include at least one member who's directly tied to the area. It might be someone who was born here, grew up here or who had some connection to the area through military service, Dombroskas said.
Last July's launch of the Charles W. Morgan whaleship following its restoration at Mystic Seaport was perhaps the 2013 tourism season's signature event.
Hotels and restaurants as well as the Seaport itself benefited from an influx of people - many of them out-of-staters - drawn to the event.
With the Morgan now sailing among New England ports on its historic 38th Voyage, the Seaport finds itself having to do without its main attraction.
"We look at that as a good thing," Dan McFadden, a Seaport spokesman said. "We're using it (the Morgan) to market the Seaport to the rest of southern New England. That's part of the reason we did it (the voyage)."
The Morgan drew some 2,000 visitors a day on Martha's Vineyard, where it docked for a week last month, McFadden said, and big crowds have since been checking it out in New Bedford, Mass., where it is scheduled to remain until Sunday.
While the Seaport's group sales are down over where they were last year at this point, regular attendance at the turnstile is up a bit, which the Seaport attributes to the publicity surrounding the Morgan.
"We want to leverage the Morgan as much as possible, but we're looking forward to getting it back," McFadden said. "We're looking forward to finishing the summer real strong."
The Morgan's Aug. 9 return to the Seaport figures to be a fundraising event rather than a public celebration, he said.
At Mystic Aquarium, trainers conducted final rehearsals Thursday of a new sea lion show that was to go live today in the aquarium's Foxwoods Marine Theater. Other new wrinkles at the aquarium include its Birds of the Outback exhibit and its Paint with a Whale program, in which guests can hold a canvas while a beluga whale paints on it with a brush placed in its mouth.
Neither Dombroskas nor the Seaport's McFadden sounded alarmed by the price of gasoline, which, heading into the Fourth of July holiday averaged $3.98 a gallon in Connecticut, according to AAA Southern New England. That was 20 cents a gallon higher than a year ago.
"It's unusual to hear me say I'm not concerned about the price of gasoline, which was a great concern for years," Dombroskas said. "But we've found that until it exceeds $4 a gallon it doesn't have much impact, and then only on long-distance travel. No one cancels a vacation because of it."
Eastern Connecticut's visitors primarily hail from within 100 to 150 miles of the region, Dombroskas said.
Day Staff Writer Colin A. Young contributed to this report.