Tourism officials hope visitors will stay a while longer Maryland saddled with perception as a weekend destination

January 18, 1998|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Blessed with more than a billion dollars worth of new and coming attractions and record spending to lure visitors, Maryland's tourism industry enters 1998 with optimism aplenty.

But while the number of visitors has risen the past few years, to about 20 million annually, the state struggles to shed its historical place as a day-tripper or weekender destination.

It badly lags behind national averages measuring by two key, directly related barometers: length of stay (2.1 days here, 3.3 nationally) and spending per trip ($270 vs. $425). By equaling the national averages, the state's estimated $6 billion annual tourism industry could reap another $3.2 billion spending and raise the tax take more than $100 million, to $450 million.

State tourism leaders look to more aggressive marketing and new attractions to lengthen stays, raise spending and reach ambitious goals within three years: increasing tourism spending to $10 billion annually, the number of visitors to 30 million. But extending visitors' stays has proved an especially elusive goal.

George Williams, state tourism director, pointed to spending boosts narrowing the gap between Maryland and competitors; 3 million increase in annual tourists over three years; and healthier hotel occupancy rates. "Our consistency in the marketplace is beginning to pay off," he said. "But the real key is getting them to think of Maryland as more than a place you pass through or stay a night."

Until three years ago, before more than doubling its budget, the state tourism office had been far outspent by competitors in the competitive, $473 billion domestic travel industry, Williams noted.

"The biggest problem in this state is we have built and built, without putting the money in for the marketing," he said. "We're definitely playing catch-up now."

To that end, the state tourism office, with an annual budget of about $9.5 million, is targeting more affluent travelers in TV campaigns and high-profile publications such as Southern Living, Better Homes & Gardens and American Heritage. The slick ads focus on attractions from downtown Baltimore to downtown Cumberland, from Western Maryland battlefields to the banks of the Eastern Shore.

And Maryland's getting a whole lot more to brag about.

Ocean City boasts a $30 million convention center expansion completed last month and plans a $3.5 million makeover of the Boardwalk with street lamps, planters, signs and information kiosks.

Baltimore's redevelopment boom will bring a new football stadium, the $30 million Port Discovery children's museum, completion of the Power Plant entertainment complex, a Planet Hollywood at Harborplace and possibly a new visitors center. Likely on the horizon for the next three years: the city's biggest hotel, an African-American museum and transformation of Inner Harbor East to a retail, entertainment and office hub.

Just outside Cumberland, the Rocky Gap championship golf course, hotel and conference center opens this year. The Eastern Shore's Cambridge, like Cumberland, hard hit by the decline of manufacturing, is pinning its hopes on a $152 million luxury resort -- including a hotel, convention center, marina and golf course -- that Hyatt Hotels plans to build on a 342-acre waterfront site. The deal is contingent on Hyatt securing a construction loan.

Along with more heavily promoting old stand-bys and the plethora of new attractions, tourism industry veterans aim to keep visitors longer through cooperative marketing and theme vacations based on traveler's interests.

The "All-American Road" will begin in Maryland, as the Eastern terminus of U.S. 40, the old National Road, marked with signs designating historic sites and towns from here to Illinois. Baltimore would become the "National Historic Seaport," with heavy marketing touting its maritime attractions and heritage. The building that housed the exhibition center at the closed Baltimore City Life Museums would become a visitors center with a parking garage for buses and cars behind it and an elevated walkway across President Street into the Disney-designed Port Discovery children's museum, breaking a long-standing barrier.

Several cities, including Baltimore, Frederick and Hagerstown, also are competing to become "heritage tourism" districts approved two years ago by the legislature. (The first heritage district enabled Cumberland to proceed with the $200 million Canal Place.)

This year, the state is to pick two of those vying to become heritage districts. Each would be governed by an independent agency, eligible for state grants and tax breaks and authorized to issue bonds.

Baltimore, the state's biggest draw, with some 7 million out-of-town visitors annually, seems poised for phenomenal tourism growth. Yet, paradoxically, the city has suffered setbacks again and again.

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