SALEM — Even before Hurricane Sandy forced tourist attractions to close and out-of-state tour groups to cancel Halloween trips to Salem, October was shaping up to be a frightening month for some merchants and tourist shops.
Smaller crowds, fewer sales, and a general lack of enthusiasm among visitors seemed to permeate the air as much as the sweet scent of sausages and fried dough wafting from vendor carts parked on city streets, business owners said.
“I think it was a very bad month,” said Jim McAllister, the 30-year owner of Derby Square Tours, a walking tour company. “Halloween week is nothing like it used to be. At least for me — our numbers were way off.”
And then the whispery winds of Hurricane Sandy blew into Witch City.
Rough seas prompted the Salem Ferry to halt routes from Boston and Hingham. Attractions, restaurants, and shops were forced to close, some for two days before Halloween, the most important tourist day of the year in Salem. The effect seemed to spill over to Halloween, with short lines at restaurants and bars, tickets available for theatrical performances, and easy parking downtown late into the evening.
Halloween this year drew an estimated 40,000 revelers, about 10,000 fewer than celebrated in Witch City last year, said Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem, the city’s tourism office.
“It was a great night,” Fox said Thursday afternoon. But it was not enough to offset a gloomy October for tourism overall in Salem. This year, 119,051 visitors came to Salem, compared with 137,459 last October, according to numbers provided by Destination Salem.
“It looks a little soft compared to last year,” Fox said.
The drop in visitors is bad news for Salem tourism, which ties much of its identity to Haunted Happenings, the month-long Halloween festival.
“It could be the economy,” said Susan Metzger, owner of Hocus Pocus Tours, which had a decline in customers for its historical walking tours. “It could be the gas prices. It wasn’t just weekends. It was the weekdays as well.”
Shop owners agreed the stars never seemed to line up in the city’s most important tourist month.
“I just think it’s been a very off October,” said Maria Harris, the 12-year owner of Maria’s Sweet Somethings, a candy and ice cream shop on Front Street. “Moneywise, we did OK. But I just haven’t seen the people or the enthusiasm. There is a certain feel to October. It just wasn’t there this year.”
After eight years selling Salem-themed gifts, The Black Paw on Pickering Wharf plans to close in spring. “The last two years have really been a struggle,” said owner Tammie Harvey, 39. “My sales [for October] are down $10,000 from last October. I don’t know if it’s because people are coming to Salem, but not spending . . . I just can’t do it anymore.”
Fox said the most successful day for merchants was probably Oct. 20, when an estimated 50,000 visitors came to Salem. “The 20th was one of the best weekends we ever had.”
Some merchants also saw a burst of business on the Saturday before Halloween.
That day “we were completely sold out,” said Stacy Tilney, communications director at the Salem Witch Museum, one of the city’s largest attractions.
“It was great,” said Betsy Menici, manager of Peter D. Barter, a florist and gift shop on Pickering Wharf. “We had a lot of people coming through, looking and buying.”
On Monday, when a state of emergency was declared in Massachusetts, people still showed up for psychic readings at Crow Haven Corner on Essex Street. “We lost some business, but other people have called for appointments,” owner Lorelei Stathopulous said.
Still, Hurricane Sandy put more than a good scare into Halloween tourism in Salem.
Devastation to the mid-Atlantic states, whose residents are a day’s drive away and a key market for local tourism, forced thousands of visitors to stay home. Cancellations piled up at Salem hotels, creating vacancies on Halloween night for the first time anyone could remember. Fifteen bus tours from New Jersey, each scheduled for a three-day visit, were also canceled.
“With a storm of that size they had to cancel,” said Helen Medler, owner of Hawthorne Tours, a group tour company. “We understood and encouraged them to [reschedule]. Of course, when people are coming for an event like Halloween in Salem, coming the next week just isn’t the same.”
The impact rippled across the North Shore. Although the tours were scheduled to visit Salem attractions, they were booked to stay in hotels in Danvers and Peabody, and dine in Gloucester. A lot of people were affected,” Medler said. “But we are in the hospitality business. We do whatever we have to do to keep people safe and happy.”
At least one Salem merchant thinks Haunted Happenings has become a tired act.
“I think Salem lacks a big event to bring people here,” said Tim Maguire, the owner of two Harry Potter-themed shops and a ghost tour company. “I think people feel they see the same thing, year after year here. They have to think outside the box.”
“I think Salem needs to rev it up a little,” said Harris, the candy shop owner. “It just seemed very flat this year.”
Fox said the city tries to enliven Haunted Happenings every October. “We know that for us to build a consumer base that wants to come back each year, there has to be something special,” she said.
Free films on Salem Common, trick-or-treating on Pickering Wharf, and Scary Mary, a rock-horror film shown at midnight at Cinema Salem, were among the new events. Carnival rides were added a few years ago to cast a family-friendly buzz on Derby Street. ”We do try to encourage new and different things for people to see and do here,” Fox said. “Tourism is always weather-dependent. It does hurt when you lose a day or two.”