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Summer tourism in Mystic recovers from 2020

Mystic — It was supposed to be the bounce-back summer tourism season.

COVID-19’s spread was in check and people who had been cooped up amid the pandemic the previous year were thought to be itching to get out and do something and go somewhere.

Well, that’s pretty much the way things have played out here this summer, particularly in Mystic, the state’s tourism mecca, where those in the business reported having a banner season.

Peter Armstrong, president of Mystic Seaport Museum and one of the few who could provide data, said last week that prior to the Labor Day weekend, museum attendance had been about twice what it was in the summer of 2019, the last summer unfettered by COVID-19 restrictions on travel and businesses.

Through Aug. 28, Armstrong said, some 117,000 people had visited the museum over the previous three months, up from 58,000 over the same period two years earlier. Even when you subtract the surge associated with Gov. Ned Lamont’s Summer at the Museum program, visits were up significantly, Armstrong said.

Mystic Seaport Museum, which received $1.5 million from the state to offset the free admissions for children 18 and under and an accompanying adult, continued the program through Labor Day though the subsidy had run out weeks earlier. In many cases, Armstrong said, both parents joined their kids in taking advantage of the program, meaning one parent was a paying customer.

“It was good for us,” Armstrong said of the museum’s participation in the program. “A lot of the people who came had never been here or hadn’t been here in a long time. It was a different demographic than we usually see, too.”

Research the museum conducted during the summer found that 25% of its visitors were members of minority groups.

While it required visitors and staff to wear masks when indoors and in close quarters with children, the museum essentially is "a big park by the river," Armstrong said, and benefited from much of what it has to offer being outdoors. Staff now face a mandate that they be vaccinated against COVID-19 by Oct. 14.

Mystic’s other major draw, Mystic Aquarium, also reported that attendance this summer has exceeded 2019 levels. 

“It’s been very much a bounce-back summer,” Dan Pesquera, an aquarium spokesman, said last week. “We expected we’d have strong attendance numbers and they’ve been steady through June, July and August. We’re looking for a great start to the fall.” 

In May, the aquarium welcomed the arrival of five beluga whales transferred from an aquarium in Niagara Falls, Canada. One of the whales died Aug. 6 and another was reported to be ill Aug. 24. A week ago, the aquarium announced the second whale's condition had been upgraded from “critically ill” to “stable but guarded.” 

Pesquera said the aquarium’s numbers suggest the summer surge in COVID-19 cases in Connecticut had little effect on visitation. On Aug. 23, the aquarium adopted an indoor mask-wearing requirement for staff and visitors, and gave employees until the end of August to prove that they had received at least the first dose of COVID-19 vaccine or had an appointment to get it.

The aquarium achieved 100% compliance with the mandate, according to Pesquera. 

Bruce Flax, executive director of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce, said COVID-19 may have had a positive effect on Mystic businesses this summer, in the sense that it limited travel to other, more distant destinations. 

“Because of COVID, people wanted something within a two- or three-hour drive, and because we’re equidistant from Boston and New York City, they came to Mystic and fell in love with it,” Flax said. 

Lacking concrete data, Flax said observations of the downtown traffic situation can serve as a barometer of business activity. He said he believes this summer’s crossings of the downtown drawbridge have exceeded the 10,000 per day the state Department of Transportation counted in May 2017, the last time such data was compiled for the chamber. 

Traffic congestion, a bane of local residents’ existence, nevertheless indicates when tourism is in full swing, Flax said. 

COVID-19 has not been a major issue in Mystic, where the chamber left it up to businesses to determine which protocols to put in place. After the Mystic Outdoor Art Festival, which set up in mid-August in new locations on the Stonington side of the village, the chamber had cases full of masks and hand sanitizer left over, according to Flax. 

“About a dozen businesses came by and picked them up,” he said. “COVID may have been a hot topic, but people felt safe. I’m sure that’s because of Connecticut’s (high) vaccination rate.”  

'Say Yes to Connecticut'

That view also was expressed by Christine Castonguay, interim director of the state Office of Tourism, who said the office’s research found a strong link between where tourists planned to travel and where vaccination rates are high. She declined to comment on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's recommendation early last week that unvaccinated people refrain from traveling on Labor Day and that those who were vaccinated wear masks.

“Connecticut has fared well in terms of vaccination rates, and businesses have taken a common sense approach (to protocols),” she said. “We’ve heard from many that were keeping plexiglass in place because it makes people feel comfortable.” 

While awaiting the compilation of statistics, Castonguay said her office believes Connecticut's summer tourism season has been a highly successful one. As anticipated, pent-up demand translated into strong bookings at hotels and other lodging and brisk ticket sales at attractions, she said. 

The state’s $1.2 million “Say Yes to Connecticut” spring/summer marketing campaign outperformed expectations, Castonguay said, generating 3.5 million visits to CTvisit.com, the state’s tourism website, and 1.3 million referrals to businesses. 

Predictions of an outstanding foliage season are fueling high expectations for fall tourism, Castonguay said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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