Scott MacKay Commentary: Rhode Island's Tourism Challenges

Nov 13, 2015

Tourism has long been a foundation of Rhode Island’s economy. As Governor Gina Raimondo’s administration rolls out a new tourism promotion plan, RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay says the state must include local tourism councils in any new initiative.

Since the 19th Century when the planters of Charlestown escaped the humidity by summering in Newport, separating tourists from their money has been a linchpin of our state’s economy. Now comes Raimondo’s  initiative to centralize and shape a new brand for our watery sliver of New England. The General Assembly has cooperated, allocating  about $5 million for a new advertising and marketing campaign to lure visitors.

Things on the tourism front are not as bleak as Raimondo stated during her campaign or in her early days in office. Tourism has rebounded far better from the recession than other industries, such as manufacturing and construction.

Newport, South County and Providence visitor agencies report strong results. Newport and South County had record summers and Providence hotel   occupancy is up. Conventions bookings are strong at the Rhode Island Convention Center.

The warm autumn weather and low gas prices have contributed to a blush of business for the state’s flourishing restaurant businesses. And a better economy has meant more business travelers.

High-end eateries and neighborhood spots are doing  fine , even though restaurateurs grouse about the high cost of doing business in Rhode Island, says Dale Venturini, head of the state’s Hospitality Association.

For other parts of our state, the challenges are more daunting. Bob Billintgon, longtime Blackstone Valley tourism czar, says his organization is still in the development, rather than the marketing business.

The area, the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution, is steeped in history and culture. It sports such attractions as Slater Mill and Woonsocket’s Museum of Work and Culture, but lacks the beaches and fine dining that other sections of Rhode Island boast.

You know you are from Rhode Island, as the old chestnut goes, when your initials – or your wife’s – are on the license plate, right above that ubiquitous motto, the `Ocean State.’ Hopefully, the new branding campaign will retain the Ocean State moniker.

While Raimondo has so far talked a good game, not everyone in the tourist promotion business is impressed with her follow-through. ``To Lincoln Chafee’s credit, he met every month he was in office with members of the state’s 7 tourism councils,’’ says Myrna George of the South County tourism agency. ``I’m hoping someday we get to meet with Governor Raimondo.’’

Rhode Island will ``always be the Ocean State,’’ says George.

Rhode Island may be so cozy that you can drive across it in 45 minutes while still obeying the scarcely noted sped limits, but it is diverse. The tourism promotion needs of Newport are much different than the challenges Pawtucket or Providence face.

One aspect that has helped Newport has been developing attractions in the off-season. The City By the Sea has been successful  with such off season events as restaurant weeks, Christmas  in the Gilded Age mansions and the city’s winter festival.

Other parts of Rhode Island would do well to copy Newport, which successfully switched its economy from one based on the huge U.S. Navy base to one based on visitors. When the Atlantic Fleet sailed from Newport in the mid-1970s, doom and economic gloom were predicted for Aquidneck Island. Due to relentless tourism promotion, Newport was able to reinvent its economy.

The governor does deserve credit for planning for as new visitor center along Route 95. Anyone who visits other New England states knows that New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine and Massachusetts all do a much better job of promoting their states through these centers.

The more existential element of tourism is that some Rhode Islanders need an attitude adjustment. Instead of being ambassadors for our state and its attractions, too many of us run down our state. Anyone who thinks Providence, for example, is a terrible place to live or visit ought to be sentenced to three years of city confinement in Hartford, New Haven, Lowell or Fall River.

Let’s stop the `Welcome to Rhode Island, You got a Problem With That’ mentality.

Putting more money into tourism, if it is well-spent, is a no-brainer. More visitors mean more jobs and rooms and meals taxes for the state. But this must be done while respecting the different needs of our diverse state and avoiding a one-size-fits all policy.

``Tourism is something Rhode Island does as well as anybody,’’ says the Blackstone Valley’s Billington. ``Can we do better. Yes we can. But not because we are broken, we’re actually shining brightly.’’

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday at 6:40 and 8:40 on Morning Edition and at 5:44 on All Things Considered. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ Blog at RIPR.org