Passion, pageantry and economic-impact statistics converged yesterday at the Legislative Summit on Tourism, where about 300 people gathered in Annapolis to discuss the state of the industry.
The recurring themes among speakers were the need for more marketing dollars and a renewed focus on what tourism can mean to Maryland.
"We're here because we can do better," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., the prime sponsor of the event held at the Radisson Hotel. "Maryland is on fire and is doing a tremendous job, but there's not a person in the room who doesn't believe we can do better. We're committed to doing better."
Taylor, an Allegany County Democrat, has introduced House legislation to create a Cabinet-level position for tourism and budget increases, beginning in fiscal year 2003, that would bring spending to about $25 million by 2007, almost double the current level of $13.4 million.
Among the group that came to talk about tourism - an industry with an economic impact of more than $7 billion a year in Maryland - were national experts, lawmakers and members of the hospitality industry from across the state.
Yesterday's event opened with a parade of about 60 people in authentic garb to illustrate the many faces of tourism - from a Confederate soldier to Miss Little Italy to a woman dressed in a Western Maryland Scenic Railroad conductor's uniform to children wearing purple face paint and Ravens jerseys.
"Tourism is big business, and Maryland is going to have to wake up to it," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.
David Iannucci, secretary of the Department of Business and Economic Development, praised tourism's role in economic development but at least hinted that the creation of a Cabinet-level department might not be necessary to achieve the desired results.
"As situated and as structured, we are well situated to meet the challenges of the future," he told the group.
The majority of states, 38, handle tourism as a department within another, as Maryland does now. But, within the past approximately 10 years, 10 states have broken those departments out or at least partially privatized the offices, according to the Travel Industry Association. Two states fall into neither category.
Tourism, which was said to return more than $8 for each dollar spent, has seen budget increases in recent years, but those increases have not kept pace with the competition.
"Since the state began investing in the aggressive marketing of Maryland, we've had impressive results," said Hannah L. Byron, director of the Maryland Office of Tourism Development. "Our competitors are still outspending us."
For instance, Virginia's budget for fiscal 2001 is $21 million, including $4.3 million for advertising, according to Virginia officials. Pennsylvania's 2001 budget of $54.2 million includes $19 million for marketing to attract tourists, a Pennsylvania official said.
Cary Summers, chairman and chief executive of a Rogersville, Mo., consulting company called Adventure Legacy and Legends, recently wrote a strategic plan for Garrett and Allegany counties. He urged Maryland officials to support increased funding and creation of a Cabinet-level position for tourism.
"I encourage the state of Maryland to seize the opportunity you have before you," Summers said. "I think you're perfectly positioned to take advantage of a very lucrative industry."