Hopes running high for tourism

Visitors: Officials hope a higher political profile, a boost in funding and better attractions will add up to more visitors to Maryland.

January 21, 2001|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

This could be the year that Maryland tourism comes of age.

The industry was the subject last week of a high-profile legislative summit. It will continue to occupy the limelight as lawmakers consider making the state's tourism department a Cabinet-level position.

In addition, tourism leaders are asking for a near doubling of the budget over the next five years - an additional $12.5 million - to stay competitive.

"All of this adds up to one thing: The door is open to look at tourism," said George Williams, the state's director of tourism, who will hand over his position to Hannah L. Byron in March. "This is a major milestone in the process. It may never come around again. It's paramount to the industry that it be viewed during this open-door process."

In the next few months, Maryland's tourism industry will come under new leadership, entertain a premier tour bus convention that is expected to create new business for years, and polish up its tourism products.

"I think it's going to be a great year," said Williams, the state's director of tourism for the past 10 years. "There is probably some reason to believe it could be better than 2000. I think people may have the feeling that the economy is not going to stay as good as it is forever, so they better take that trip."

Williams plans to step down to join his wife, who has taken a job in New Orleans.

A key event is the American Bus Association Marketplace convention Jan. 27 to Feb. 2. The gathering of 400 tour bus operators is expected to pump $2.5 million in direct spending into the local economy. More important, it is expected to increase group tour business here by 10 percent, Byron said, generating an estimated $32.5 million in business.

"The ABA is really a premier event for us," said Byron, who is currently deputy assistant secretary of the Maryland Division of Tourism, Film and the Arts. "It's going to be a great opportunity to showcase Maryland and Baltimore."

Among the tourist attractions the state will promote this year is Civil War Trails, which recently received a $700,000 federal award that will help create signs, pull-off areas and maybe a CD for visitors to hear on their drive along the 70-mile route. The trail, patterned after highly successful Civil War tours in Virginia, would take travelers on the route that General Robert E. Lee followed when he invaded Maryland in 1862, a strategic move that ended at Antietam.

State tourism officials also continue to hone multicultural, sports and outdoor tourism initiatives.

The tourism summit, a project of longtime tourism advocate House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., was held in Annapolis Monday. It was part of the focus on how much the state should spend on tourism and whether the state's tourism office should report directly to the governor.

This year, the tourism industry will seek to increase the tourism budget to $25.9 million over five years, a significant increase but one that wouldn't keep pace with nearby rivals. Virginia's budget for 2000-2001 is $21 million, and Pennsylvania's is $54.2 million, according to officials in those states.

From Ocean City to Western Maryland, 2000 was a good year for tourism. Although the cool, sometimes rainy, summer proved a mixed blessing for business in Ocean City, where the tourism season represents an economic impact of $1 billion to $1.5 billion, the town surpassed its usual 4 million visitors. Room tax revenue in July exceeded that of the previous year by 8.5 percent, and in August by 14.1 percent, according to a spokeswoman for the town.

Across the state, Allegany and Garrett counties reported increases in hotel and motel taxes over the previous year. Accommodations taxes in Garrett County rose 15.5 percent in fiscal 2000, and hotel/motel taxes rose 2 percent in Allegany County in fiscal 2000, according to county officials.

Carroll R. Armstrong, president and chief executive officer of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, said Baltimore racked up significant milestones last year, including OpSail 2000, the NAACP national convention, the National Square Dance Convention and the Army-Navy Game.

"We're really getting our act together and developing this singleness of purpose," he said. "Having that singleness of purpose is the magic that underscores the quality of experience that we provide our visitors. Those cities that understand that are the most successful."

But he says there is reason to be cautious about 2001. Shaky consumer confidence could dampen tourism, he said.

"2001 for us is going to be a challenging time," Armstrong said. "I see 2001 as a year where we really need to be focused on the basics and trying to do those things that give us the biggest return for the money."

Overall, more than 18 million visitors to Maryland spent about $7.1 billion in 1999, according to the Maryland Office of Tourism Development.

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