Tourism down as holiday approaches

by Beacon Staff • October 26, 2005

Standing with fellow employees, escaping from the rain under a white ticket booth vacant of customers, Donna Story, assistant director of the Salem Wax Museum's Haunted Neighborhood, said she thought tourism had decreased by 40 percent since 2001.,"This October, Derby Street in Salem is not bustling with the usual number of visitors hurrying to the different museums and Halloween attractions offered by the city.

Standing with fellow employees, escaping from the rain under a white ticket booth vacant of customers, Donna Story, assistant director of the Salem Wax Museum's Haunted Neighborhood, said she thought tourism had decreased by 40 percent since 2001.

Carol Thistle, executive director of Destination Salem at the Office of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, said calculations from the Visitor's Center showed that the number of people visiting had dropped by five percent over the last year. This figure excludes October of this and last year, however, which is Salem's busiest month for tourism, she said.

With its garish history dating back to 1692, when the Salem Witch Trials began, the city has depended on its sordid past to draw in tourists.

While there are numerous contributing factors as to why there is a decrease in visitors this year, one major reason is the cuts in spending for tourism promotion since 2002, said Shane Bell, manager of Salem's first witch shop, Crow Haven Corner.

According to the City of Salem's Fiscal Years 2002-2004 Annual Budgets, the Market and Tourist Department was cut by 73 percent. The funds annually go to Destination Salem, the nonprofit marketing arm designed to promote the city, said Salem Mayor Stanley J. Usovicz, Jr.

Thistle said the city and local businesses, like hotels, restaurants and shops, pay a membership fee to Destination Salem that goes to the upkeep of two tourist Web sites and two visitor guides. Requests for visitor guides that are shipped throughout the US have almost doubled in the last year, she said.

Usovicz said tourism is not the only aspect of the budget that has been cut. State aid has decreased and healthcare costs have resulted in "budget busting," he said. Salem has laid off teachers, municipal workers and early retirement recipients in the police and fire departments, according to the mayor.

When Usovicz was asked about Story's estimate regarding the decrease of tourism was down by 40 percent, he said, "I've heard ranging numbers. I've not heard a number that reflects 40 percent."

Usovicz also said that it was unlikely that the $40,000 budget cut for tourism promotion has made a difference in the number of visitors coming to Salem.

With the city operating on a quarter of its previous tourism promotion budget, however, the cuts have been felt at Bell's shop. Also a licensed tour guide, Bell said the decrease in tourism is hurting the local economy. "It's dramatically hurt tourism in Salem by cutting the budget . [but] thankfully [tourism is] picking up because of other events compensating for a lack of funds," he said.

Bell referred to one such event, the unveiling of TV Land's "Bewitched" statue memorializing actress Elizabeth Montgomery, who played the witch Samantha on the '60s TV show. Her bronze image now stands in Town House Square.

In addition, Salem hosted a Harry Potter convention in early October that, according to The Salem News, brought almost 1,000 people to the city.

"Salem's recently undergone a renaissance," Thistle said. "The National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Salem as one of America's top destinations." She hopes the current growth will lead to more tourism.

Lynn Dahling, who has worked part-time at the Haunted Neighborhood for 13 years and has watched the original one-day Halloween event evolve into a month-long attraction, said the drop in visitors this year could also be due to the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

Since the Gulf Coast was pummeled by two massive hurricanes in August and September, gas prices have spiked, which could be causing some people to not travel as they normally would, Dahling said.

Thistle agreed. "I definitely think that gas prices have impacted us," she said.

Last year's weather was better, said Dahling, with temperatures in the 70s, instead of the steady rain that has pelted the coastal city this October. Thistle suggested the Commuter Rail as an alternative to driving because it is only five stops from North Station. She also said that Destination Salem had partnered with the MBTA to promote usage this Halloween season.

Junior print journalism major Meghann Ackerman visited Salem for the first time with her family while she was in high school. She returned last September with fond memories of the variety of museums and an appreciation for the less-traveled parts of the city.

"We took the Commuter Rail, which is like a 20-minute ride and five or six bucks [round trip]," Ackerman said. "There's a lot there, it's not just witch stuff or really touristy . there's a lot of history."

Ackerman said the New England Pirate Museum is something different for tourists to visit.

Dahling suggested that people come to Salem because Halloween is a less stressful holiday, especially for families.

"It's not just for one age group or one culture," Dahling said. "It's a good celebration. It's families celebrating each other's company more than anything."

Nora Matthews, a sophomore writing, literature and publishing major, said she was also considering going to the city for Halloween, but thought it was strange that a city famous for persecution is now dependent on such a violent history for tourism.

"A friend told me [about Salem] because I don't have any other plans, [but] it seems weird that this town [is] touristy," Matthews said. "I think a lot of people are making it into something it's not."

For Story, Matthews' perception of the city is just another example of the hurdles the local business community is facing.

Whatever may have lured tourists to Salem in the past, there has recently been a decline in visitors and for some members of the community it has been hard not to notice. They hope that this weekend, the most distinctive reminder that Halloween is around the corner is not the wind rattling the dried cornstalks strapped to the lampposts downtown, but long lines of tourists waiting to see the sights of Salem.

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