Backyard attractions

Tourism officials cite rise in daytrippers as local economy shows signs of hope

The Lewis H. Story, a 31-foot replica Chebacco schooner, was among the attractions drawing crowds to the Salem Maritime Festival earlier this month. The Lewis H. Story, a 31-foot replica Chebacco schooner, was among the attractions drawing crowds to the Salem Maritime Festival earlier this month. (Mark Wilson for The Boston Globe)
By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / August 18, 2011

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For four days last month, the equivalent of roughly 80 percent of Boston’s population thronged and teemed on Revere Beach to marvel at elaborate fortresses, oversized turtles, giant veiled busts, and other abstract and willowy creations meticulously crafted from sand.

Ultimately, organizers estimate that between 450,000 and 500,000 people were estimated to have visited the beach’s annual festival featuring the world’s eminent sand sculptors - a surge of some 100,000 more onlookers than last year.

“Revere was absolutely packed,’’ said Ernest Garneau, executive director of the nonprofit Revere Beach Partnership. “The businesses on the beach literally had lines out the door.’’

Although gas prices are staying stubbornly high, the world and national economies remain precarious, and the stock markets unsettled amid the US government’s downgraded credit rating and hazy fiscal future, the region is nonetheless slowly recovering from the storms - both real and economic - of the past few years. It’s a slow improvement that’s fueled, many say, by area residents discovering, and oftentimes rediscovering, nearby attractions.

Take Jennifer Cabral of Tiverton, R.I.: She and a friend - both weighted down by shopping bags - explored the streets of downtown Salem on a recent hot and sunny Friday afternoon.

“We hit the little shops, did some early Christmas shopping,’’ Cabral said with a laugh as she stood in the shade next to the National Park Service’s Visitor Center on New Liberty Street.

Nearby, other groups and families strolled; pedicabs waited to be hailed; interpreters milled about in Colonial dress; trolleys full of passengers rumbled past; and Segway tours whirred along in packs. “I like the history, and all the stuff that goes with it,’’ Cabral continued, showing off several colorful, blown-glass “witch balls’’ (meant to trap evil spirits) that she purchased for friends and family.

“People still want to get out, they still want to experience a vacation,’’ said Susan Middleton Campbell, with the North of Boston Convention and Visitor Bureau. In doing that, she noted, people are looking to “what’s in their own backyard.’’

Salem, Newburyport, Marblehead and Cape Ann are particularly appealing destinations, she said, and the region as a whole is attracting visitors from throughout New England, New York, and New Jersey who are trekking out on what she called “daycations’’ - that is, staying one or two nights instead several days or a week.

Backing this up, she noted that in June, occupancy rates in Essex County were up 4.2 percent compared with June 2010.

The coastlines have similarly been busy.

“Certainly the activity on the beach has been up,’’ Garneau said of Revere.

And it was way up during the annual sand-sculpting festival, held July 14 to 17. Visitors on the Saturday alone totaled about 300,000 - six times the city’s population.

In addition to what Garneau called an overall trend of locals “rediscovering urban beaches,’’ he attributed the swell to increased marketing this year, as well as a following that’s been building over the event’s eight years.

Overall, Revere Beach has been holding more events - including a bocce tournament this weekend - to lure more visitors. Sometimes two and three activities have been organized over one weekend, said Garneau, to the point that scheduling has become an involved process.

Other cities and attractions have also been diversifying to court visitors.

Newburyport, for instance, is looking into cooperative marketing with surrounding cities and towns, and is beginning to offer broader community events, according to Ann Ormond, president of the Greater Newburyport Chamber of Commerce and Industry. People are drawn to the city principally for its culture, history, and natural resources, she said.

The Salem Maritime National Historic Site, meanwhile, has been staging more hands-on activities on weekends, according to supervisory park ranger Michelle Blees, including tutorials where landlubber visitors can learn about hauling cargo, navigating, and estimating custom taxes.

Although the summer was “pretty flat’’ compared with last year through June (which Blees ascribed partly to the weather), “from the Fourth of July weekend on, it’s been booming,’’ she said.

The park’s annual Salem Maritime Festival was particularly successful, she said, drawing an estimated 12,000 people with its variety of musical acts, free 90-minute harbor cruises, boat tours, crafts and activities, and roving revelers on Aug. 5 and 6.

Last year, the event attracted just 7,000 - it was held over a weekend of damaging storms, Blees explained - while 2009 welcomed about 9,000.

“It’s definitely more of a local draw, people who come back year-to-year,’’ she said.

Meanwhile, a year ago in Newburyport, the average person stayed for a day trip, according to Ormond, and the bulk of people were from Massachusetts.

Fitting with that, Salem appears to be seeing more one-day visitors, who travel from within a 50-mile radius and don’t stay overnight, and fewer so-called tourists, who travel 50 miles or more and stay overnight, according to Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem.

The trend is reflected by Cabral and her friend, Nancy Dickinson, who made a day visit out of the roughly three-hour round-trip drive from their hometown. Dickinson’s parents’ graves are in the city, so she tries to come up to the area at least once a year to pay her respects, reminisce, and poke around, she noted. After shopping, the two planned to go to Salem Willows Park, buy popcorn, and feed the seagulls.

Still, they’re not taking nearly as many day trips as they used to. “Gas is outrageous,’’ said Dickinson, noting that it cost about $60 to fill up for the visit. “You can’t go as far, you can’t spend as much, you don’t buy as many frivolous items.’’

Dramatic decreases in stops at the visitors center in Salem would seem to back up the assertion that more people like Cabral and Dickinson are staying closer to home: Traffic at the welcome facility is down more than 15.5 percent over the first seven months this year, compared with the same period last year.

Fox noted that people who stop at the visitors center are typically first-timers who are new to the area. Similarly, she said, Destination Salem would like to investigate the impact of smart phones and the Internet on visitor center traffic, and the need for such a facility in a digital age.

By contrast, the website has seen a 14.5 percent increase in unique visitors between this time last year and this year, and a 3 percent increase in page views, Fox said. Still, she said, gauging tourism in a city relies much more on anecdotal evidence than tracking the numbers for an attraction with a gate and an entry fee.

Overall in Essex County, tourism annually accounts for about $635 million in spending, and $157 million in payroll, according to the most recent figures from the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.

Those numbers have climbed and dipped a bit over the past several years, according to statistics, due both to the economy and to other, uncontrollable factors.

“The weather is huge - June was abysmal,’’ said Fox.

Boats and water excursions can’t run and visitors simply don’t want to walk around when it’s pouring and winds are high, she noted, so bad weather immediately eliminates a lot of day-trippers.

But this year, “July was beautiful and businesses have been seeing increases,’’ she said.

Which is a definite improvement over 2009, what Ormond described as “not a good year for anyone, no matter what business you were in.’’

The previous two years were good, Ormond said, but 2009 took a “couple steps back,’’ and since then the area has been “rebuilding’’ from the low point.

“The past couple of years have been challenging,’’ agreed Middleton Campbell. “We still have a ways to go to catch up to where we were.’’