Tourism as an economic engine in Massachusetts, tapping foreign markets for visitors and boosting the shoulder season economy on the Vineyard were all topics for discussion Tuesday when the Joint Committee on Tourism, Arts and Cultural Development held a public hearing on the Island.
Part of a statewide listening tour, the hearing was held at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center and chaired by Rep. Cory Atkins, a Democrat from Concord, and Kathleen O’Conor Ives, a Democrat from Newburyport.
Also attending were Cape and Islands Rep. Tim Madden and Betsy Wall, executive director of the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.
Ms. Wall spoke about the changing demographics of Massachusetts tourists, and said the tourist group with the highest rate of growth is the Asian market, especially those traveling out of China. Massachusetts is well-positioned to tap into this visitor population because of the college presence, she said.
“Thanks single-handedly, in fact, to Harvard University, Massachusetts has a really good brand identity in China,” she said. In June, Logan airport will begin nonstop service from Beijing, ahead of New York. “We like to beat New York in every possible way,” Ms. Wall said.
She said her website (massvacation.com), receives 44 million visits from travelers and prospective travelers each year.
Island elected officials, businessmen and arts leaders asked for guidance on how to expand tourism in the off-season.
While tourism is robust in the summer months, Martha’s Vineyard Commission chairman Fred Hancock lamented the chicken and egg problem of the shoulder season economy. “We have businesses that close because there is no business, and people don’t come because the businesses are closed,” he said.
Mr. Madden, who lives on Nantucket, suggested carving out niche areas of off-season programming to attract visitors. He cited the International Film Festival as an example.
Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel said the Martha’s Vineyard Striped Bass and Bluefish Derby already draws more thn 3,000 visitors to the Island in the fall.
Ms. Wall said 34 per cent of tourists in Massachusetts are local and live about 50 miles from their vacation destination. About a third visit from Europe.
Martha’s Vineyard Chamber of Commerce executive director Nancy Gardella said her agency puts a lot of effort into attracting driving tourists who will come down for the weekend from Providence, New York and Connecticut.
But while local travelers are constrained by roughly the same work and school schedules, foreign visitors tend to have more leeway to travel in the off-season, Ms. Wall said. They don’t cancel their travel plans based on weather forecasting.
Ms. Wall said her office was working to reach as many diverse markets as possible.
Kerry Scott, owner of Good Dog Goods in Oak Bluffs, said she felt attention should be paid to return visitors. She said she’d like to see visitors keep coming back, eventually becoming taxpayers.
“We feel as though it is our job to promote Martha’s Vineyard as the premier destination in the world for visitors to come to,” she said. “It is our fervent hope that every daytripper turns into a weekend, weeklong, monthlong, home-buying person who falls as desperately in love with Martha’s Vineyard as we have.”
Island hotelier John Tiernan announced his plan to serve short-term tourists and asked if there were grants available to small businesses.
This summer, he said he plans to begin a baggage valet service at the Steamship Authority wharf in Oak Bluffs.
“The goal is to get baggage out of people’s hands as soon as they get off the boat and put shopping bags in there, and ice cream cones and food,” he said. “It’s definitely going to increase the tourist experience for Oak Bluffs.”
Ms. Atkins, who said she is a frequent visitor to the Island, lauded idea. She said she once bought a giraffe in Oak Bluffs and had nowhere to put it while she continued shopping.
Many offered praise for the improving vitality in Oak Bluffs.
“There is a whole rebirth of the village of Oak Bluffs, largely because of the leadership of the town manager, and most importantly because of the leadership of past and present boards of selectmen,” Mr. Madden said.
“Everybody is pushing to get Oak Bluffs back to the grand city it was at the turn of the century,” Mr. Tiernan said.
Next week representatives from the Massachusetts Cultural Council will walk the streets of Vineyard Haven as part of the a site visit. The town is applying for state designation as a cultural district.