Time to reinvent the state tourism program again

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Eye from Albany
September 2000

Time to reinvent the state tourism program again
By Paul M. Bray

I still remember meeting with William Doyle, Senior Deputy Commissioner of Commerce in the Carey Administration, who was responsible for tourism. It was 1977 and Doyle had a private office looking out an a vast area of empty office space.

We talked about the potential opportunities for the State of heritage tourism which was just beginning to appear on the horizon with the creation of the first heritage area (Riverspark) in the Troy and Cohoes area at the confluence of the Hudson and Mohawk Rivers. Doyle said, ‘This is all very interesting, but you can see how empty handed the State’s tourism program is.’

Not long after this meeting the State leaped to the forefront of mass media tourism with the award winning ‘I Love New York’ marketing campaign. The campaign was innovative, trend setting and exciting and it ignited a much needed spark or psychological lift after the financial collapse of New York City in the mid-seventies. After the marketing campaign was launched, the State started a program of matching local funds for advertising by county tourist promotion agencies (TPAs).

And there you essentially have our State tourism program today. It has not changed very much over the last twenty years although we have entered an era of mass tourism since that time. What once was dynamic has become stagnant or ‘stabilized’ as one state tourism official prefers to calls it at a time when conditions are changing at a mind boggling pace. Even in the 1980’s Matt Murphy, former Assembly Chair of the Tourism Committee, was warning that a tourism program was not something that should rest on its laurels.

Mary Ellen Walsh who is a spokesperson for State Division of Tourism likes to point to the great tourism ‘product’ we have and the growing economic impact of tourism that makes it ‘one of the largest and fastest growing industries in New York State’ according to the Division’s Master Plan. When asked what is new, Walsh points to a commitment to a four season marketing campaign, learn to ski packages and an expanding website. It doesn’t sound terribly new to me.

Most of the economic boom in jobs has been in New York City, the Hudson Valley and Long Island. It hasn’t carried over to the rest of the State. Untapped tourism potential exists in historic cities like Albany, the second oldest settlement in America, and special places like the Mohawk Valley, Champlain Valley, Finger Lakes and 1000 Islands where many chapters of American history combine scenic and water resources. Despite the positive economic impact of I Love New York, the tourism program is as out of the loop when it comes to heritage and eco tourism it was in Doyle’s day in the 1970s.

There are reasons why the State’s tourism effort remains only stable and lacks dynamic planning and development in New York State. Tourism is difficult industry to understand let alone lead. So it isn’t surprising that the State tourism effort carved out the area of mass marketing and has not moved much beyond that comfortable niche into planning and development.

While its economic impact (generating $37 million in expenditures in the State in 1999 and providing one in every nine jobs) is significant, it is a very diverse and fragmented industry. As Mark Atkinson, Publisher of the Tourism Advocate pointed out to me, ‘No one owns tourism’. Tourism embraces state and local government and a wide diversity of private endeavors that include accommodations, attractions and providers of transportation large and small. It is hard for anyone to assert leadership.

Atkinson calls tourism a reverse export industry with the customer, the tourist, coming to the place of production which may be Manhattan or the Hudson River Valley and is in effect a dispersed manufacturing plant. Its assembly line includes restaurants, hotels and attractions which the tourist organizes to produce a product of experiences and memories.

It should be recognized that the reason most visitors give for coming to New York State is to visit family and friends. That means all of us who reside in the state influence the tourism assembly line. If we know the natural and cultural assets of our own communities and like them, we will greatly affect the volume and impact of tourism economy. So the attractiveness for us as residents of our communities and countryside is an essential element of realizing a healthy tourism economy.

It is this aspect of developing the tourism product, fostering attractive communities and preserving our cultural and natural assets, that the mass media marketing driven state tourism program located in Empire State Development falls very short.

It is the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation with its historic sites and system of 17 heritage areas that includes, for example, a more than 100 mile stretch of the Mohawk Valley, Hudson River Valley Greenway and Hudson River Estuary Program, Department of Transportation with the Scenic By-ways program, Department of Environmental Conservation with its campgrounds and open space preservation program, Department of State with its waterfront program and numerous local historic preservation organizations among other public and private entities that are making the State attractive and feasible for having a heritage and eco tourism economy. They are creating amenities and preserving natural and cultural resources that can sustain a healthy tourism economy. They are, in effect, the real State tourism development program, but in many respects very separate from it.

While the State’s Tourism Master Plan makes passing reference to efforts like the Scenic Byways Program, it ignores completely programs like the Hudson River Valley Greenway and the State Heritage Area System despite the fact that the State has invested without any real connection to the State tourism program $20 million in visitor centers for this Heritage System. It falls completely short in defining clear objectives and strategies for integrating the State’s environmental, heritage and transportation enhancement efforts with the marketing program which is looking increasingly like an old hat. This is only one example among many where the State tourism program has ignored or been out of step of real efforts to enhance the tourism product.

Governor Pataki with the Legislature can justifiably claim some credit for stabilizing the State’s financial commitment to tourism after the dip in support in the early 1990s and for invigorating environmental and historic preservation efforts to create real tourism product (special places), but there is still a crying need to connect these environmental and community enhancement efforts with the existing State media driven tourism program.

The Governor working with the Legislature needs to appoint a Tourism Czar to lead the reinvention of the State tourism program. There needs to be an independent tourism agency so that the state tourism program no longer will be obscured in the larger program of the economic development agency. But however it is approached, the time has come for I Love New York to start all over again and get ahead of the curve.