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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.

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Yet even if these campaigns resonate with the summer's vacationing ethos, measuring their success rates proves difficult. It's impossible to say New York's Go Local "will generate X amount of dollars for the economy," Mr. Heywood says. "But Fox [5] picked it up, New York 1 picked it up, our CEO was on Bloomberg Radio. It seems to be a message that's very relevant."

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Evaluating a promotion by comparing summer 2008 visitation rates to summer 2007 rates is problematic because gasoline prices have not remained constant, says Mike Carlton of Tennessee's Department of Environment and Conservation, which is sponsoring an initiative to inform Tennesseans about "Less Than One Tank Trips" to state parks.

Boston's "Visit the Pin" website did receive more than 5,000 hits within 24 hours of being launched in late June, according to Julie Burns, Boston's director of arts, tourism, and special events. But data on total hits or pin-related text messages received in July are not yet available, she says.

The best way to gauge the impact of the campaigns is to observe how local residents are responding, says Michael Brein, a Honolulu-based travel psychologist.

"To experience your local environment in a way that you have not before requires you to break [everyday] patterns, and to do that you need to open your consciousness," Mr. Brein says. "And no one can do that for you."

On a recent weekday evening, the giant pin stationed in Boston's Copley Square appeared to have had little influence on Glenn Carbonneau's consciousness.

"It's a red ball on a crooked stick," said Mr. Carbonneau, who lives in Quincy, Mass., and just returned from vacationing in the New Hampshire mountains with his brother and father.

Sitting on the steps of the square's fountain, Carbonneau said he came to appreciate Boston's beauty not through any city campaign but by living in Hawaii and then returning to his native city with fresh eyes.

Chris Kurth, who was selling sunflowers and squash at a farmers' market nearby, complained that the pin was an eyesore compared to the square's historic, Neo-Romanesque Trinity Church. Mr. Kurth said he's seen no increase in customers that he could attribute to the pin's presence, and he recommended that the city promote stay-at-home vacations through special events like live music instead.

Other Bostonians had a more positive view of the campaign.

"It's really cool, and I didn't know anything about it until a visitor told me, which is ironic because I work right there," said Tanya Priyadarshini, gesturing toward the nearby John Hancock tower. "My parents are visiting soon, and the pins make me want to learn more about the whole [campaign] before they come."

As they craft their initiatives, tourism officials in all cities should make sure to engage directly with residents, says Professor Kolb.

"Let's say you're in the south side of Boston. You should ask local people, 'What should people experience here?'... It's neighbors talking to neighbors, and that will build a sense of community."