An upper-deck, London-style view of Baltimore's tourist attractions

Hop-off, hop-on bus rides set for downtown, beyond

September 08, 2005|By M. William Salganik | M. William Salganik,SUN STAFF

Now, it will be possible to get an upper-deck view of Baltimore without buying a ticket for the Orioles or Ravens.

The Greater Baltimore Committee is scheduled to unveil this morning a hop-off, hop-on tourist loop service to be plied by signature double-decker London transit buses with their tops sheared off. The bus route will connect the Inner Harbor to attractions outside of downtown.

Baltimore will become the second U.S. operation for the Big Bus Co., which operates in Philadelphia, as well as London and Dubai.

Donald C. Fry, president of the GBC, said his business group had been hearing for years that "the harbor is obviously a great tourist venue, but there are so many places in the city not tied directly to the harbor."

The buses will link to the Baltimore Museum of Art and the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore to the north, the B&O Railroad Museum and the Babe Ruth Museum to the west and Little Italy and Fells Point to the east.

"It's great news - the tourism industry has been waiting for this for a long time," said Nancy Hinds, vice president of public affairs for the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, one of the sponsoring advertisers for Big Bus.

Because the bus provides a narrated tour and point-to-point transportation, "it's also a marketing tool for the hospitality industry," Hinds said.

In its effort to launch a tourist loop, Fry said, the GBC several years ago consulted the Maryland Transit Administration, which operates public buses but decided not to offer the service.

Then, one day about 18 months ago, Fry was in Philadelphia and saw the double-decker in operation. Fry said he and zoo President Elizabeth "Billie" Grieb met with Big Bus initially. Then, GBC made it an attractive proposition for Big Bus by helping line up other potential advertisers, including the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Harborplace, Port Discovery and a hotel trade group.

"Baltimore is at the point Philadelphia was five years ago - it needs something to pull it together on the tourism side," said Jim McDonald, vice president of product development for Big Bus USA. He said Big Bus, which has been operating in London for 15 years, has been looking to expand in the United States.

He said Baltimore will start with two or three buses, which were shuttling tourists around the streets of London until being shipped here a few weeks ago. The Philadelphia operation, which began with two or three buses three years ago, has 20 vehicles in its fleet, he said.

"They've broken a few tree branches, but other that that, it's great," said Cara Schneider, media relations director for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp.

She said she did not think the double-deckers drew more tourists to Philadelphia, but they might have helped some attractions outside the city's downtown.

She said the Big Bus and amphibious duck tours arrived there about the same time. Both commercial operations have been successful enough to expand their service and attract competing fleets of double-decker buses and duck tours, Schneider said.

Baltimore, too, has a duck fleet. Ed Green, Baltimore director of Ride the Ducks, said he was not sure whether Big Bus would have an impact on his five-duck flock. The ducks offer an 80-minute tour, but they do not go farther north than Mount Vernon and do not offer a hop-off option.

A Big Bus ticket is good for 24 hours of getting on and off the bus. It will cost $25 for adults, $22 for senior citizens and students, and $10 for children ages 4 to 14. Children younger than 4 can ride free.

Service will begin Saturday, with initial operating hours from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. During the winter, the schedule might be cut to weekends only.

McDonald said the fall start "gives us an opportunity to do a dry run, and put together advertising and marketing" before expanding operations next spring as the tourist season resumes.

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