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Staycation over

Boston’s tourism industry expects number of visitors could top prerecession figure

By Katie Johnston
Globe Staff / July 19, 2011

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Don Sniffin hadn’t taken his family on a real vacation since he was laid off from his job as a software engineer in Boulder, Colo., in 2007.

But this summer, securely reemployed, Sniffin, his wife, and their three children - ages 11, 14, and 17 - flew east for a nine-day holiday in Boston, Plymouth, Cape Cod, and Maine.

“This is the biggest trip we’ve taken in a number of years,’’ said Sniffin, 48, as he followed a costumed tour guide along the Freedom Trail.

The Sniffins aren’t the only ones breaking out of staycation mode. After big drops in 2008 and 2009, Boston and Cambridge are attracting an increasing number of vacationers, and this year local tourism officials expect visitors to exceed the 20.8 million people who came to the region in 2007, just before the last recession began.

This still doesn’t come close to the record years of 1999 and 2000, when “everyone was walking around with these platinum American Express cards,’’ said Patrick Moscaritolo, president of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, but a recovery appears to be in full swing.

Three of the biggest attractions in Boston have weathered the economic problems of the past 4 1/2 years in different ways. The Freedom Trail experienced its only drop in visitors in 2008; Old Town Trolley Tours faltered in 2009. The Museum of Science had decreases in 2008 and 2010 but a banner year in between, due to a wildly popular “Harry Potter’’ exhibit. Officials at all three expect this year to top or equal the numbers in 2007.

Looking to next year, some tourism operators are positively giddy, citing the reopening of the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum, the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, and bicentennial commemorations of the War of 1812 on the USS Constitution. New restaurants on the South Boston Waterfront and increased awareness of the Boston Harbor Islands are also attracting more visitors.

“I think we’re entering a golden era of tourism here,’’ said Matthew Murphy, general manager of Old Town Trolley Tours.

It didn’t take major Boston milestones to impress 10-year-old Olivia Smith from Michigan, who was taking in the sights aboard an orange and green Old Town trolley with her mother, Danielle, last week. All she needed was a dunce cap with the words “fart machine,’’ which she got at a Faneuil Hall eatery. “Dick’s Last Resort is like the best restaurant ever,’’ she said.

That more than made up for her allergic reaction to Boston cream pie at the Omni Parker House - the very place the dessert was invented.

Despite the recent surge in visitors, tourism officials agree the economy is still weighing on the industry. With gas prices high, savings accounts low, and the national unemployment rate stuck above 9 percent, everyone is watching spending and searching for a deal. Free admission at the Museum of Science, for example, attracted a horde of visitors Friday. The garage filled by 10:30 a.m., and exhibit halls swarmed with families checking out a giant grasshopper and a slice of a 2,000-year-old sequoia tree.

Karen and Sean Aherne of Shrewsbury surprised their four children, ages 2 to 9, with a trip to the museum when they realized they could save more than $100. The health care management company where Sean works has had three rounds of layoffs, and concerns about the economy have made saving money a way of life for them.

“You can’t just spend money willy nilly,’’ he said. “We never did that . . .’’

“But we do it less so now,’’ his wife added.

The mentality is much different than it was five years ago, said Phil DeStefano, statistical analyst at the Museum of Science. “People are looking for bargains,’’ he said. “If you say free anything, they’re going to go.’’

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com.

Boston-area tourism on the rise
PHOTO GALLERY

Boston-area tourism on the rise

Three of the biggest attractions in Boston have weathered the economic problems of the past 4 1/2 years in different ways, and all three expect to top or equal the numbers from 2007.