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U.S. cities tout merits of less costly 'staycations'

As the economy drags, cities launch campaigns to woo residents to local attractions.

By Uri FriedmanContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / August 1, 2008

Lee Clapper suggests that Boston's 'Visit the Pin' idea could be made into a citywide game.

Mary Knox Merrill – staff

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What do temporary tattoos, 12-foot-tall red pins, trips to Six Flags, and tickets to the Broadway musical "Wicked" have in common?

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They're all ways America's cities are encouraging local residents to vacation at home in this summer of high airfares and soaring prices for gasoline and food. As many states reel from reductions in consumer spending and sales-tax collection, successful efforts to turn tourism promotion inward could breathe much-needed life into local economies.

"Anytime you can keep a dollar at home, that's good," says Bonita Kolb, a marketing professor at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa. "If you have commercial attractions like theme parks, local people may often go there. But there's a lot more to a city than that, like local cultural events that people might just ignore because they take them for granted."

Last week, New York City unveiled a "Go Local" website that highlights free or inexpensive activities ranging from an African guitar festival in Brooklyn to the Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival in Queens. The city will dispatch street teams every Thursday for the next five weeks to distribute savings passes, weekly itineraries, and Go Local-branded stickers, temporary tattoos, and beach balls to residents.

"This is the first time that the city has actively called on New Yorkers to discover their backyard," says Christopher Heywood, a vice president for NYC & Co., the city's marketing and tourism organization.

New York joins a slew of cities engaged in similar initiatives. In an attempt to mimic the way people use pins to mark destinations on a map, Boston has installed 1,500-pound red pins at 10 city landmarks to reacquaint Boston-area residents with Beantown's charms. Visitors can send a text message at each pin to learn more about the location.

In Chicago, tourism officials are offering locals hotel packages that include theater tickets, and they're urging Chicagoans to recount their "urban adventures" on a special website.

Dubbing itself "fun central," Arlington, Texas, has created a "staycation" page on its website replete with adrenaline-pumping music and discounts on jaunts to the local Six Flags amusement park.

The campaigns are, in large part, responses to the country's changing travel patterns. About 1.3 percent fewer Americans will fly anywhere this summer compared with the same period last year, according to a forecast by the Air Transport Association, which represents the major carriers. High gasoline prices are also causing people to travel closer to home, take fewer trips, and spend less money on incidentals like souvenir shopping, says Mike Pina of the American Automobile Association. But, he adds, a significant portion of the US population is still traveling.