Officials look for tourism in Md. to take flight again

Economic gains noted at meeting in Ellicott City

Howard County

October 20, 2003|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Maryland's tourism professionals are traveling to Howard County this week for a conference to highlight hopes for a rebound in an industry that has suffered in recent years.

The Maryland Governor's Tourism Industry Conference began yesterday with a lunchtime chat by Aris Melissaratos, secretary of the state Department of Business and Economic Development, and will end tomorrow with an economist's projections for a stronger return to travel, nationwide and locally.

Today officials have planned tours of Howard County's farms, mansions, historic districts and environment. Visitors will be invited to shop on Ellicott City's Main Street and roam through the woods in Patapsco Valley State Park armed with little more than a compass and a guide.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and Comptroller William Donald Schaefer are expected to attend the conference, which addresses the health of one of the top five industries in the state.

"Despite everything, it's really phenomenal tourism is continuing to grow. We haven't had any sharp decreases," said Karen Glenn, a spokeswoman for the Department of Business and Economic Development.

According to Glenn, the leisure and hospitality sector added 3,500 jobs in the state from July 2002 to July 2003. Food services and drinking establishments added 5,300 jobs in the same period, and hotel and motel occupancy rates improved to 75.1 percent in July from 73.9 in June this year.

Hotel and motel tax receipts also increased in July by 9.3 percent from the previous month, Glenn said. And job growth in the tourism and hospitality sector is outpacing the national average at 1.5 percent growth, compared with 1.1 percent for the country as a whole.

"In general, things are becoming much better in the travel industry," said Anirban Basu, an economist and chief executive officer of Optimal Solutions Group in Baltimore, who is scheduled to speak at the conference tomorrow.

"It was one of the most hard-hit even prior to Sept 11, 2001," he said. "This is one of the segments of the economy that we would expect to enjoy a vigorous recovery because there's something from which to bounce back. We're now at a point where we're beginning to see that."

The conference, an annual event, is being held this year at the Turf Valley Resort and Conference Center in Ellicott City. It concludes tomorrow with industry work sessions on grant writing, economic development and travel trends for next year.

Basu said the state can expect to see a stronger return to travel next year.

"What we've seen is a shift in market share. Drive-to destinations have fared better than the fly-to. ... Western Maryland and [the] Eastern Shore better than Las Vegas and Orlando," he said. "But what we're anticipating is a general improvement in travel. Maryland is both a fly-to destination and a drive-to. In general, as is the case with the economy, we can be upbeat."

Virtually every region of the state is focusing on tourism as a future economic driver, he said, because it is an industry that generates income from outside our region. Howard County is following that trend, making efforts to create more attractions for visitors - especially for day-trippers.

Rachelina Bonacci, executive director of the Howard County Tourism Council, said the group is focused on the state-sponsored Civil War trail and the National Road programs, both of which are maps and markers tourists can use to self-guide their way to historic sites.

A marker for Cooksville, which is part of the Civil War trail, is expected to be installed within a month, Bonacci said, and the state is planning a second phase of the Civil War trail that will focus on Baltimore and involvement of the region.

The first markers for the National Road, a highway that began in Ellicott City near the B&O Railroad Museum, are expected to be placed in the ground next year, she said.

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