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Sam Allis | The Observer

No blast from the past

Boston as a tourist destination is more work than fun

The Observer dismisses lists because, like eyewitness testimony, they're usually misleading or plumb wrong.

That said, one released last week by Condé Nast Traveler drew my attention. According to its latest Reader's Choice Award ranking American cities as favorite tourist destinations, Boston is now 10, behind Charleston, S.C.; Santa Fe; and Savannah, Ga.; among others.

Boston, it turns out, has bumped around the top 10 for the past decade or so, but its trajectory down has been gradual but unmistakable. No earth-shattering news here. What does interest me is the trio of cities that now outrank it.

What do the ranking of Charleston (3), Santa Fe (4), and Savannah (8) mean? They tell me that Americans - exhausted two-career couples and their kids, in particular - want to relax on their pitifully short vacations. They want easy. They want fun. They want small.

What they don't want is dutiful. Boston is dutiful. These people don't want an "eat your spinach" history marathon through the 16-station Freedom Trail with the threat of a spot quiz back in the hotel room on Crispus Attucks.

When I think of Boston as a tourist spot, the word "fun" rarely enters my mind. Endlessly interesting, challenging, often gorgeous, but not a barrel of laughs. (I was stumped recently trying to name one truly funny Bostonian.)

Our historical and cultural treasure is vast. Its appeal is high end, domestic and foreign, says Pat Moscaritolo, the head of the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau, who tells me that the average visitor is well educated with a household income around $90,000.

But at the end of the day, do you take your family to Paul Revere's house or the Outer Banks? Boston is incredibly rewarding, but as a tourist destination, it's work. The city is hard to decipher, and unlike, say, Charleston, its historical gems are spread across town amid glass and steel.

And to state the obvious, Boston costs mucho dinero. A middle-class family of four can expect to end up in a motel somewhere near the Sister Corita gas tank by the Southeast Expressway or in the wilds of the McGrath Highway in Somerville.

Charleston, in contrast, is a piece of crab cake. It's easy. Its history lies in a coherent geographic grid. Spectacular beaches are minutes away. And you walk out of its airport terminal 50 yards to your rental car. Contrast that with the magical mystery tour from Logan to your auto rental on beautiful Route 1A.

I write this as all our numbers are up. Tourists, hotel occupancy, Freedom Trail walkers, foreign visitors - each is looking good. Yet none of that alleviates my concern how Boston will fare in the future. Here's the question that matters: Will it continue to tell its Colonial history, Boston's defining tourist brand, the same old way?

Let's hope not. Boston needs to rethink how to tell its story. History is now being told in new ways elsewhere. History has moved on, while Boston has not. As a French friend of mine who chose to remain nameless said of Boston: "It doesn't reinvent itself. It's not bold."

(He also cited the gigantic orange art installation by Christo in Central Park two years ago and asked, "Can you imagine that happening in Boston?")

"Huge numbers of people still come here for history, but it's changed. It's harder," says Peter Drummey, librarian of the Massachusetts Historical Society, who does a lot of historical outreach with students. "Now it requires a different presentation, in part because the sensibility has moved away from the great man and great event theory."

Boston suffers from the decline in American history taught in public schools, too. "The assumption that everyone has had some grounding in it before they arrive no longer holds," he says. "Now it's tabula rasa."

So how do you take people from zero to 60 in Colonial history in a day? How do you blunt the notion that people don't want to use their time off to burnish their history credentials? And how will all this be addressed coherently?

My French friend confirms that a sophisticated slice of his compatriots will always visit Boston. "Bostonians are cold and not very hospitable, just like Parisians," he says drolly.

But the French also seek out what they call "Deep America" in the Midwest and beyond, far from Eastern cities and big hotels. While Europeans may yawn at our churches and museums - they were in early on them, after all - their jaws drop at Monument Valley.

I don't worry about Boston in the short run. Fenway always beckons, our food has improved dramatically, our museums are strong, and a nightlife is emerging. Also, parents come in droves to visit their offspring at overpriced schools here.

It's the long run that scares me. Our history is our claim to fame, and it feels stale. The vogue of the Founding Fathers is fading. I don't know what the history tour of the future will be here, but I know we need one. You see hordes trek the Freedom Trail. Great. The most interesting jaunt I've taken, though, was on the Black Heritage Trail, and I was alone on that one.

Go Sox.

Sam Allis can be reached at allis@globe.com.

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