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Tourism goes broadband

Online tours and other offerings help promoters make timely pitches for the world's destinations

The same Internet that's making so much of the world just a virtual click away is revolutionizing the way the US tourism industry entices people to come visit in person.

Marketers who not long ago waited for prospective tourists to send in postcards to get a glossy brochure have pushed into dramatically more timely promotional tactics, like video clips, live webcam feeds, and downloadable video tours. From Philadelphia to Oregon, US destinations are offering advanced tools for planning and generating a detailed itinerary that can be downloaded to a hand-held computer.

This summer, Tourism Massachusetts, a nonprofit group that markets to international visitors, began rolling out the first 15 of a planned 50 two-minute videos promoting venues like Cape Cod and the Berkshires. The technology, at website USAMass.tv, lets officials put television-quality video in front of millions of potential tourists at one-tenth the cost of European television infomercials. A bubbly British host adds an international feel.

``It's a very different and compelling new form of communication to get our story in front of potential international visitors, and as a high-tech state, we should be marketing ourselves in a high-tech fashion," said Bill MacDougall, president of Tourism Massachusetts.

With only light promotion of the site in a handful of countries like Italy and Argentina, more than 75,000 visitors have tuned in so far. To sponsors' surprise, the top source of hits is China.

Each 2 1/2- to 3-minute segment costs about $10,000 to produce and host online, and officials have found that they can afford to produce many of the next 35 segments in high definition. Coming soon, MacDougall hopes, are ways to make the clips available for download to video-capable portable entertainment devices like the iPod and the seatback televisions of airlines like JetBlue that fly to Logan International Airport.

It's not just for fun. In Massachusetts and dozens of other states, tourism has become a crucial business. Bay State tourism officials estimate that as many as 125,300 jobs across the state depend on tourism. In 2004, the last year with full records, more than 31 million visitors spent $12.5 billion and paid $808 million in state and local taxes, according to the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.

With more than 48 million US homes with high-speed Internet connections, downloadable and interactive web video is far more feasible and, officials say, necessary.

Concierge.com, a travel website associated with Conde Nast traveler, earlier this month began offering a six-minute look at 24 hours in the life of New York City, with time-lapse photographs showing daybreak over the city and Central Park and late-night bustle in Times Square. This week the site is adding a similar look at Miami, followed in coming weeks by virtual days in London and Paris.

The chamber of commerce for a Colorado resort, AspenChamber.org, recently began offering virtual tours of a half-dozen attractions there. ``As visitors have become more tech savvy, using online tools to make vacation decisions, we saw a need for creating a method to explore town without even being here," said Lisa Weiss, marketing director for the Aspen chamber.

Another take on the same idea is tours through the eyes of average residents. At VisitPA.com, Pennsylvania officials offer 14 local tours designed and narrated by regular-guy hosts like Pittsburgh limousine driver Calvin ``CJ" Jackson, who urges visitors to check out museums and a famous pot-pie restaurant, and Erie barber Mike Pelusso, a fan of the Lake Erie shore. (Some better-known Pennsylvanians, like Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, also offer their personal-favorite tours.)

Similarly, GoHawaii.com began offering a travel guide this fall with 300 photos taken by native Hawaiians, selected from more than 8,000 submissions. Research showed that ``visitors appreciate knowing what residents like to experience," said Jay Talwar, vice president of marketing for the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau.

Tourism promoters around the country are also finding a host of ways to use Internet technology to not only help potential visitors learn about local attractions, but to build itineraries online.

TripCart.com, a New York-based travel planning website, is rolling out a new travel planning service this week for leaf peepers, using Google Maps, to chart where fall foliage is at its most glorious and to highlight nearby attractions.

At TravelOregon.com, which is run by the state, tourists planning a visit to Oregon can build a personal travel journal based on places and events they want to enjoy in each of seven zones of the state. The site can then generate an itinerary linking all of them.

Over the last three years, the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau has developed a similar tool, aimed chiefly at tour operators and group travel bookers, called Planit Philadelphia. It has a searchable database with several hundred attractions, restaurants, shops, and venues offering guided tours, color-coded by neighborhood and price, that can be assembled into a ready-made itinerary.

For people curious about what it's like there right now, Internet-connected digital video cameras can give images of sites ranging from the Boston skyline to the 18th hole of the legendary Pebble Beach golf course in California.

Some officials, though, think webcam technology isn't as ready for prime time as some of the other Web-based innovations. Around Massachusetts, about a dozen webcams beam images from tourist destinations like Chatham, Gloucester, Hyannis, Nantucket, and Provincetown.

But rather than evoking quaint New England charm and salty air, many look more like parking-lot surveillance.

``I think the webcam process is in its infancy," said Paul Sacco, director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.

``A lot of these images are pretty cloudy and grainy," he said. ``It's not the best depiction of the area. And if it's on your website, you need to be putting your best foot forward."

Peter J. Howe can be reached at howe@globe.com.

Take an online tour:

Walk through Aspen, virtually. Plan your ski runs at Utah's Park City Mountain Resorts. Spend 24 hours in New York City, compressed into a few minutes. Monitor live webcams on Cape Cod, Pebble Beach and Hawaii.

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