By Steve Urbon
Standard-Times Senior Correspondent
NEW BEDFORD — Could it be true? Could the predictions be right? Could $4 gasoline and the American dollar declining into Monopoly money on the Fourth of July weekend spell success for the region’s tourism industry?
It seems so, judging by the results of the early tourist season in SouthCoast. Attendance is up at local attractions, even if people are spending less when they get here because they have to fill the tank for the ride home.
Foreign visitors taking advantage of the cheap dollar to visit America? Check.
Regional visitors from a half-day drive away, responding to a Massachusetts tourism advertising blitz? Check.
Local residents visiting the attractions in their own back yards, places they have lived with without getting to know? Check.
Jennifer W. Gonsalves, chief of visitor services for the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, keeps spreadsheets documenting the traffic at local tourism destinations. So far in 2008, she reported that free attractions are clicking in more people, 10 or 20 percent over last year, while most that have a paid admission are generally off a bit.
But what’s this? June figures just compiled by the New Bedford Whaling Museum tell a happier story. “Year to date,” said Karen Allen, director of programs and operations, “we are up 7.5 percent in paid admissions. Last year was an OK year, and we are actually above our projections for this year as well,” she said.
Rentals of the museum for weddings and other special events are booming, she said. And local people are coming back for a closer look at the museum after attending a reception there in the evening and realizing that they’ve been missing something special, said Ms. Allen.
Several tourism insiders noted that travelers from Canada and Europe are proliferating, with an added twist: the Scandinavians are coming to New England in the summer, preferring not to wait until their usual travel period in the fall for foliage-watching.
Arthur Motta, director of the Bristol County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that “the nations we are getting are the traditional ones, but in greater numbers — the U.K., Germany. We’re seeing people we wouldn’t usually be seeing until the fall, the Norwegians.” The thinking was that it was that summer here was too hot for them, but the attraction of a vacation in the New World is becoming too good to postpone.
Visitors center traffic is up; both the city-operated Waterfront Visitors Center and the National Park Service’s newly expanded headquarters on William Street have seen increases so far this year, according to Ms. Gonsalves.
They, too, are seeing the same types of travelers from Europe and states close to New England — New York, New Jersey, where the advertising has been relentless. “The Mass. Office of Travel and Tourism is really blasting New York City and New York state with 90 Massachusetts commercials. They’re really seeing them in the greater Albany and New York metro region,” he said.
Six of those 90 different commercials feature Bristol County; three feature New Bedford, he said. The ads are also running nationally.
Mr. Motta said that much-anticipated direct flights to Milan, Italy from Boston have been delayed and won’t start until mid-July. But when that finally happens, More Europeans will have a direct route into New England, so they can get around the hassle of flying into New York City and renting a car for a four-hour drive into Greater Boston.
Mr. Motta, who attended a tourism conference in Italy earlier this year, said “the Europeans may hate the Bush administration, but they view New England very, very positively, and they view Boston as the gateway to all of New England. It’s all considered a mega-region.”
Mr. Motta happily learned that “for the average southern European, the travel iconography for New England is Pilgrims, cranberries, and Thanksgiving. That’s not the Nutmeg State (Connecticut). That’s not Providence. All of the images associated with New England are Massachusetts. That’s a sort of marketing niche we have with them.
“And they are very interested in our Maritime heritage. I talked to a media company there about doing three episodes for their discovery channel on maritime Massachusetts,” said Mr. Motta. “They all know ‘Moby-Dick.’ It’s kind of a supreme icon.”
When those direct flights begin, tourism from Italy “could double without too much trouble,” said Mr. Motta.
“We had two travel writers in from Scotland this weekend,” said Anne- Marine Lopes, the city’s director of tourism and marketing. “They did a regional thing, Fall River, Westport, and with a primary focus on New Bedford,” she said. An Italian travel writer visited in May as well, she said.
She said that the state’s advertising campaign “in three months has produced 1,200 leads for us” via the Web site www.massvacation.com, where they leave their names and addresses. “We’ve been getting inquiries from 46 states and several foreign countries,” she said.
Another ad the city is running in a newspaper inset has produced 6,000 inquiries, she said. One result is a spike in visitors at the waterfront visitors center, which clocked 1,838 people in June, compared with “just over 1,000” in June 2007.
Attendance at the Buttonwood Park Zoo is also up, she said. “It’s the second or third highest it’s ever been” — another sign of locals taking advantage of what’s local.
Ms. Lopes has noticed a new trend working in the city’s favor: “We have an interesting phenomenon, an increase in unique group tours. Teachers are coming from Georgia on a ‘teach American history’ grant,” she said. Other academic and civic groups and associations have also made New Bedford their destination, including bibliophiles who converged on the Whaling Museum’s research library to see the treasures of maritime books, art and artifacts.
Something else is helping: the three coastal cruise ships — American Star, American Spirit and American Glory — that have been putting into New Bedford harbor this year, with 58 to 90 affluent passengers each time.
Ms. Lopes said that the city is ready with guided tours. “They’re greeted when they come in by either someone from my office or a park ranger. Then they go on the trolley to the Whaling Museum and the Rotch Jones Duff House. Some of the people have free time and after the Whaling Museum walk around the historic district. We bring them back to the ship for lunch and bring them back again in the afternoon.
“Thanks to the Preservation Society we give them a historic tourism tour of New Bedford’s historic section, where they look at the architecture. Then they go to Fort Taber, where the military museum is a big hit,” she said.
“Then we bring them back in time for either resting or to take a harbor tour on the Acushnet. In the evening we have a fisherman, current or past, talk to them about a day in the life of a fisherman. That’s been a big hit, too,” she said,.
“We’re getting feedback from the cruise ship that one day just isn’t enough,” she said,
But that one day is a bonanza for Capt. Bob Bouley and the harbor tours boat, the Acushnet. “With that cruise ship, I’ll have as many passengers in one day as I have in an entire week,” he said. “And, man, I tell you, for the past few days, you talk about the Europeans!”
Mr. Motta said that travelers are changing their vacation patterns this year to compensate for higher costs. “They’re making four-day weekends in July and August and going on shorter trips,” he said.
They’re also taking advantage of what’s offered nearby. “State parks and forests have predicted much higher attendance,” he said.
He added that “agritourism” is also doing well: visits to wineries, breweries, organic farms, cranberry bogs and the like. Such tours are often free, although tourists are encouraged to spend all they like buying the products that they have just learned about.
Area hotel bookings remain fairly strong, Mr. Motta said, thanks in large part to the Europeans and to all of the social events. “We’re seeing more wedding parties,” he said.
Ms. Allen said that the Whaling Museum has become an extremely popular venue for weddings and other gatherings (although the much-desired Lagoda Room is unavailable for functions because of the restoration work going on there).
Those attending functions in the evening (the museum closes at 5 p.m.) are given an hour to explore the whole museum, she said. But it often isn’t enough, and many people return during regular hours to explore a place that’s so close by that the locals never think about it.
Kathy Pietkiewicz, a volunteer at the national park visitors center who also is employed by an art gallery in the historic district, said that the tourists coming into the city “are going to dinner but they’re foregoing drinks and desserts” to save a few dollars. “Then they might stop at an ice cream stand on the way home.”
Merchants are finding that their more expensive items are staying on the shelves while visitors look for cheaper mementoes of their tour.
Barbara Johnson, who runs the Green Lantern jewelry and accessories boutique on Purchase Street, said that a corner of her store where she sells second-hand merchandise has been her busiest department.
Next door, Elaine Lima said that business continues to be good at Elaine’s T-Shirts, but even though a world map is bristling with stick pins showing the home towns of her “black whale” T-shirt customers, she is not banking on the tourist trade.
Her bread and butter is in custom T-shirts with such things as family photos, she said, plus the regular business in costume rentals. This being the Fourth of July weekend, “we’re out of Uncle Sam and Statue of Liberty. I rented 18 costumes for parades.”
Getting tourists to Purchase Street has been a struggle, said Ms. Lima and others. It seems there are both psychological and physical barriers that tend to keep tourists from venturing west much beyond Custom House Square. The gentle hill on William Street is enough to dissuade especially elderly visitors from walking another block or two to see the shops.
“A lot of people are older and mobility is a problem with some,” said Ms. Lopes. “When people come on Sundays, we have a number who are on the younger side, and they like to go off on their own.” The trick is to work with merchants to make certain they remain open, and then see to it that tourists are led to their door.
Ms. Lima said that this weekend she is trying an experiment, and staying put at her Purchase Street storefront during Summerfest rather than setting up a tent in the historic district. “It’s a lot of work and at my age I’ve got to slow down,” she laughed.
But her hope is that Purchase Street will continue its revival and more people will gravitate there with a little prodding from tourism promoters.
Contact Steve Urbon at email@example.com
July 06, 2008
By Steve Urbon