Marine tourism gaining steam

Green taxis, floating rentals bubble up along waterfront

Barbara Alderman and Richard Rakip enjoyed the weather during a recent sunset wine tasting cruise. Barbara Alderman and Richard Rakip enjoyed the weather during a recent sunset wine tasting cruise. (Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe)
By Kathleen Pierce
Globe Correspondent / July 1, 2011

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It’s 7 a.m. on a Tuesday as Piper Olsen hops a taxi to Logan Airport. Twenty minutes later, she’s in Terminal A about to go through security. The veteran business traveler from New Jersey has gone through this drill before, but this time there was a twist.

“I felt great. It was a nice way to wake up,’’ said Olsen, who didn’t have to flag down a cab and sit idly in tunnel traffic. Instead, she boarded a “green’’ water taxi to take her from the Seaport Hotel to the airport in 10 serene minutes for $7.

As Boston’s waterfront revival gains momentum, a cottage industry of small businesses - from floating vacation rentals to green taxis - is developing. Craig Cunningham, vice president of marketing for the Seaport, says everyone who has a stake in Boston’s harbor area will benefit as a result.

“The more interest there is in the waterfront, the better it is for our business,’’ Cunningham said.

This summer, the South Boston Waterfront hotel has teamed up with Rowes Wharf Water Transport to offer zero-emission rides to and from Logan in the battery-operated vessel named Unplugged. Cunningham said his 428-room hotel has a geographical advantage over similar properties located in the city’s core. “When people come to Boston, they want to see the Tea Party site and the Atlantic Ocean,’’ he said.

And the best way to do that, say those in Boston’s growing marine tourism trade, is by sea, not land.

Don Benoit of Foxborough is one of the new crop of harbor entrepreneurs counting on the attraction of water. While chartering sails on his sloop, Tupelo Honey, out of Charlestown Navy Yard last year, Benoit said, he realized there was a potential business opportunity just down the coastline. “Seeing the development of Fan Pier, I’m saying to myself, ‘Is there an affordable way to get over there?’ ’’ he said.

In May, Benoit launched Cityside Harbor Shuttle to offer quick and easy rides around Boston Harbor from wharf to wharf, Thursday through Sunday. Private dock hops have become popular with locals who want to dine at the new restaurant-rich Liberty Wharf, see the city’s growing Innovation District or stroll the HarborWalk. When the weather cooperates, his powerboats are in demand.

“It’s a risk getting into a business like this, but if you don’t get in early, you may not get in. I’m willing to struggle this year. I’m very optimistic about the signs,’’ said Benoit, who also runs a heating contracting business in the winter.

Although Boston’s marine tourism industry is in its infancy, many expect the area to become the city’s new hot zone.

“Up until now, Back Bay was the center with shopping on Newbury Street and the Hynes Convention Center. It’s all shifting to the waterfront,’’ said Vivien Li, president of the nonprofit Boston Harbor Association. “The harbor was Boston’s backyard, now it’s the front yard.’’

Li said the number of water shuttles and charter boats on Boston Harbor has increased by 30 percent since 2006 - five new companies. She attributes the surge of popularity to “a cleaner harbor and more destinations along the waterfront.’’

You can’t get any closer to the water than by booking a houseboat moored in the Shipyard Quarters Marina in Charlestown. Andy Chason said rentals of private boats with roof decks and Wi-Fi at SleepAfloat have increased fivefold since he began offering a small fleet to overnight guests three years ago. Starting with three houseboats in 2008, SleepAfloat now has 17 and expects to add another by the end of the month. “People are looking for something unusual and interesting,’’ said Chason, the company’s chief executive. “There’s no question about it, they want to be on the water now.’’

Whether his customers are from Germany, Australia, or Albuquerque, Chason said, he can put together a weekend of water-based activities, from a Legal Sea Foods-catered dinner cruise to a wine tasting on a sloop. In 2008, he couldn’t do that. “The ancillary activities have grown exponentially,’’ he said.

And so has his revenue. “We have doubled our business for the past three years, in the worst economic period since the Depression, because there is such a demand for the waterfront,’’ Chason said.

And it’s not just small businesses that are prospering. The Fairmont Battery Wharf in May launched a partnership with Boston Lobster Tours. Hotel guests can take a 75-minute cruise on a lobster boat with captain Tony Carli, an Everett firefighter who runs the tours on the side. When guests return to the hotel, the chef at its swank Aragosta restaurant prepares their catch for dinner, if they’re lucky enough to bring anything back.

Such aquatic amenities have helped increase group occupancy at the hotel by 25 percent this year, according to Maxence Compagnon, director of operations. He said a large percentage of group bookings come from Massachusetts technology and financial companies choosing to stay locally for conferences and team-building sessions as the overall economy slowly rebounds.

“It’s not well perceived to bring companies to Hawaii, so they come here for two or three days and organize a minicruise right off our dock,’’ said Compagnon. “We have booked a dozen offsite meetings on boats this year.’’

While working on her iPad and enjoying a lobster roll at Legal Harborside on Liberty Wharf recently, Olsen, the green water taxi rider, dashed off an e-mail to her boss in Dallas at Bright Horizons, a child-care company based in Watertown.

“When we come up to Boston for our annual sales meeting, we have to do something on the water,’’ she told him. “If we are going to bring all these people from Texas and Washington, D.C., they need to see this.’’