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Sunnier days ahead?

The recession has hurt tourism, but state officials and business leaders forecast a brighter summer

By Dave Copeland
Globe Correspondent / May 4, 2010

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After being battered by the recession for the past two summers, the Massachusetts tourism industry is starting to see the sun.

Tourism officials say this summer probably will be better than the summer of ’09 for travel companies as residents continue to look for less expensive vacations in their own backyards, and the area again becomes a hot spot for international travelers.

Betsy Wall, executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, said early data compiled by the office suggest tourism is rebounding in Massachusetts.

Visits to Massachusetts from other countries are up 11 percent so far this year, the state office said.

For the same period, the Massachusetts Port Authority, which runs Logan International Airport, reported a 7.1 percent increase in passenger arrivals at Logan, including a 6 percent increase in international arrivals.

“Early 2010 data show a modest increase in volume and spending across the US, with Massachusetts increases significantly higher,’’ Wall said.

Rental property agents, hotel operators, and tourism officials say part of the growth in local travel is coming from the area’s own residents. They say that even as the economy slowly rebounds, the “stay-cation,’’ which became popular during the recession, is still favored by vacationers who are looking for less-expensive destinations closer to home.

The summer rental market, in particular, is benefiting. A February survey of 1,000 vacationers by the travel information company TripAdvisor found that 68 percent of those who responded were considering booking a summer vacation rental this year, up from the 52 percent who booked a summer rental last year.

Meanwhile, a report by the rental listing website HomeAway.com showed an overall increase in rental inquiries for key regions of New Hampshire, Maine, and Massachusetts for the January-to-April period, when most people book their summer vacations.

Kelly Weiser, real estate director at Owl’s Nest Golf Resort in Thornton, N.H., estimated that advance bookings for the 100 units at the resort for the summer are up 15 percent over this time last year as more families and golf groups that otherwise would have gone to more exotic destinations are sticking closer to home.

“What we’re seeing is people who might have been buying before are now content to rent,’’ said Weiser, who helps homeowners rent their homes when the condominiums are not being used.

The Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce’s chief executive, Wendy Northcross, said most of her 1,356 members have reported increased bookings.

That’s a change from last year, when the Cape was hit hard not just by the recession but by dismal weather that kept many last-minute visitors away.

“We’re seeing a lot of favorable signs,’’ she said. “The only reason why I would say I’m cautiously optimistic at this point is the weather always plays a huge factor.’’

By some projections, Northcross said, the overall tourism sector on the Cape could post double-digit increases this season over 2009. “What I think we’re seeing is the release of a lot of pent-up demand for people who couldn’t afford to go away the past two summers,’’ she said.

Hotels also are experiencing an uptick. Combined Cambridge and Boston hotel occupancy was up 7 percent in the three months ended March 31, according to data compiled by the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“Last year was a double-edged sword. Consumer confidence was low, and the stock market was tanking, and when that happens, people hold onto their money,’’ said Patrick B. Moscaritolo, chief executive of the visitors bureau. “I’m more bullish about the trends for this summer.’’

The better outlook for the hotel industry is, in part, driven by lower room rates. In Greater Boston, average hotel room rates were $131 per night in February, the most recent month for which data are available from PKF Consulting, which conducts research on the hotel market. That’s down 8.7 percent from a year ago, with the biggest drop in the Back Bay, where rates were down more than 13 percent.

Paul Tormey, general manager of the Fairmont Copley Plaza Boston, said that even though prices were low, he has reason to be “cautiously optimistic.’’ Fairmont Hotels & Resorts’ two Boston hotels —the Fairmont Battery Wharf is the other — have had increased bookings and growth in the number of international travelers.

Prices will remain lower than a year ago, partly because of the opening of new hotels in the region, Tormey said, but Boston has fared better than some other markets when it comes to occupancy rates, in part because it is within driving distance for so many potential customers.

“The last two years have been a lot like looking through a very foggy crystal ball and trying to figure out what was going to happen,’’ he said.

“But based on the last three months, which has always been a slow period for the Boston market, we had more rooms occupied than in the same period last year, and that bodes well heading into the summer.’’