BOSTON — NEW England tourism officials are optimistic about the summer vacation season despite funding cutbacks in state tourist offices and a regional recession. "Everything I have heard in the last couple of months has been that inquiries from tourists are up and the ... spring indicators seem to look fairly good," says Greg Coenen, president of New England USA, a nonprofit organization that promotes travel in New England.
Despite their positive outlook, state tourist officials are nonetheless frustrated with funding cutbacks due to budget deficits in all six New England states. Many argue that budget-strapped states should invest more money in tourism, not less, to help bring in needed revenues.
"You need a permanent funding mechanism so in good times and bad times you're promoting," says Patrick Moscaritolo, president of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Tourism is an investment and it will bring back the revenue for social service and human service needs."
Massachusetts Gov. William Weld (R) has been a strong advocate of tourism investment. He proposed doubling the state tourism budget for fiscal year 1992, but the legislature has not been supportive given the state's fiscal problems.
Tourism officials nevertheless point to a dramatic drop in state funding; in fiscal year 1985 Massachusetts had the third highest state tourism budget in the country, but by fiscal year 1991 that ranking fell to 30th, according to Ashley McCown, speaking for the state tourism office.
"For every $1 put in the tourist industry, the state gets $8 back," says Sarah Mann, director of the Massachusetts tourist office. "It's the best way to jump start the economy."
Last month, Governor Weld, in the spirit of his "entrepreneurial government" policies, announced a new public/private tourism program. Under the "Vacation Massachusetts" program, the state provided $300,000 while the private sector contributed over a half-million dollars' worth of hotel and restaurant discounts.
Other states are working on new and different strategies as well. Rhode Island has started a hospitality training program for tourist-industry workers. New Hampshire has successfully targeted a growing Canadian market as well as the traditional Boston market, according to Christopher Jennings, director of New Hampshire's tourism office. Inquiries about state guide books are up this year as well, he says.
"We've accomplished in five months what it took 12 months to accomplish last year," Mr. Jennings says. "We're already 18 percent ahead of last year [in inquiries]."
Maine's tourism office has suffered severe cutbacks. Two years ago the office was operating on a $3 million budget; this year it is half that, says John Johnson, director of tourism information. "Welcome Home" celebrations for Gulf war troops focused attention on Bangor, Maine. Marketing strategies, directed toward the "impulse tourist," helped, too, he says.
"People's vacation habits are changing," Johnson says. "They come on the spur of the moment and they stay a few days and they do that a few times a summer."
But some industry officials are not so upbeat. According to Mr. Moscaritolo of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, Boston hotel occupancy was down 9.3 percent the first four months of this year compared with the same period last year.
Sara Johnson, an economist with DRI-McGraw Hill, a consulting firm based in Lexington, Mass., nevertheless expects a better season ahead. "I don't expect a strong tourism season but I do expect some pickup this summer," she says. New England's tourism industry may benefit from the weak dollar since overseas travel will be expensive and Americans will stay closer to home, she says. But she also notes that tourists from the area will be spending less due to falling incomes and high unemployment.
Unemployment may continue to fall the rest of the year and not rebound until next spring, but the tourism industry may well show signs of recovery sooner, Ms. Johnson says.
Tourist officials say New England needs a strong regional marketing strategy to attract European visitors.