Keeping tourism on track
Businesses fear that fewer visitors will make trip to see area attractions if information centers, MBTA service are cut
Spring plantings at the Phillips House on Chestnut Street in Salem sow the seeds for a new tourism season. Trolleys carry folks around Lowell National Historical Park. Cruise ships due in Gloucester and Boston hold the promise of drawing new visitors to historic and cultural sites across the north region.
But state budget cuts for facilities such as the Maria Miles Visitor Center in Salisbury, and the Greater Merrimack Valley Visitors Center in Chelmsford, along with a possible reduction of MBTA train and bus service from Boston, could derail the summer tourism season, local officials said.
"We're looking to hold our own," said Julie McConchie, executive director of the North of Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau in Peabody. "But state funding is critical to what we do. If we go through the whole budget process and end up with no funding, we'll have a problem."
William Luster, director of the North Shore Alliance for Economic Development in Salem, said curtailing weekend train and bus service is unfair.
"The communities along the commuter rail line have spent decades building tourism economies," Luster said. "They did that believing MBTA ridership would grow, and the service increased, not decreased."
The MBTA is considering steep cuts to train and bus service as part of a proposal by the cash-strapped agency to save $75 million in the next fiscal year, which starts July 1.
The North of Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau is asking its members, which include hotels, restaurants, and attractions, to press state legislators to support three amendments to the state budget now being debated on Beacon Hill.
Governor Deval Patrick eliminated funding for state-run visitor centers in his proposed fiscal 2010 budget. Funding for 13 regional tourist councils, which operate locally in Peabody and Lowell, is due to be reduced from $9 million this year to $6 million in the proposed budget, according to McConchie.
Budget amendments being proposed could restore some funding. One amendment would increase funds for the regional tourist councils to $7 million. Two other amendments would add a combined $1.7 million to fund visitor centers across the state. The Maria Miles center - on Interstate 95 south, just across the New Hampshire border - serves about 500,000 visitors each year, officials said.
"We're the first thing someone sees when they enter the state," said Bill Pickles, chief of visitor services at the center. "What will it say if we're not open?"
Meanwhile, the MBTA, facing substantial revenue shortfalls, has proposed eliminating train service on weekends, and after 7 p.m. on weeknights. Bus service would be cut back after 8 p.m. on weeknights and eliminated on weekend days.
Gloucester, Lowell, Newburyport, Rockport, and Salem rely heavily on day-trippers who use public transportation. The North Shore Alliance for Economic Development has sent a letter to MBTA officials urging them to rethink the cutbacks. "We need to analyze and quantify the impacts of those service cuts," Luster said.
An MBTA spokesman said the agency is faced with a difficult situation.
"The T shares the opinion that cutting service is not a good idea," said MBTA spokesman Joe Pesaturo. "But we have a $160 million gap in the fiscal 2010 budget and the problem will not solve itself. A remedy needs to be identified before July 1, the start of the fiscal year."
Pesaturo said the T has stated since February that without such a remedy, "there will have to be a consideration of fare increases and/or service cuts. But no specific service cut or fare increases are on the table at this point."
There are bright spots on the horizon. Gas prices are well below the $4 per gallon mark they hit last summer. In mid-April, the average cost of a gallon of unleaded gas was $1.39 lower than the same time last year, according to AAA New England.
"Gas prices are definitely more favorable," said McConchie. "Business travel has been hurt in the economy, but we're more hopeful about vacationers. People are still going to take vacations. It's just a matter of how long they stay."
The Phillips House in Salem is ready to welcome visitors. Volunteers from local garden clubs planted flowers and seedlings in the gardens. The house, in the Phillips family for five generations, tells the story of a New England shipping family. "It's a fascinating family story," said Julie Arrison, site director at the property owned by Historic New England of Boston.
Cruise ships docked in Boston also could give the region a boost. Massport, which plans $1.5 million in improvements to the cruise terminal, is helping to point visitors north for day trips. "We work closely with tour companies and travel agents," said Mike Leone, director of the Port of Boston. "Once people get here, there is great opportunity for them to spend money."
Hotels, inns, restaurants, and tourist attractions across the region have signed on to the Mass ValuePass, a statewide promotion. Discount rates as high as 25 percent for rooms, two-for-one admission passes, and other discounts are included in the pass, which runs through June 30, according to the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.
Officials also are targeting the so-called drive market, or areas that are within one day's drive away. A promotion at the AAA Travel Show, held last winter in Foxborough, drew strong interest from tour operators. "We collected names [of operators] and gave out tons of information," McConchie said. "That was a great sign to us that perhaps things aren't going to be too bad."
The region also hopes to hitch its star to Sail Boston 2009, a tall ships festival planned for July 8 to 13. . About 50 ships, including the Friendship and the schooner Fame, both based in Salem, are expected to be docked in Boston Harbor. To coincide with the festival, a new Maritime Mansions and Twilight Tour is planned for Saturdays in July and August. Sea captains' stately homes across Essex County will be open for night tours.
"It's a natural tie-in for us," McConchie said. "It's a good opportunity for us to show our maritime history in a new light."
Kathy McCabe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Globe correspondent John Laidler contributed to this report.