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New England tourism officials optimistic for summer season

Hat shoppers stroll through Newport, R.I., on Memorial Day weekend.

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff

Hat shoppers stroll through Newport, R.I., on Memorial Day weekend.

Memorial Day weekend may not have been the sun-splashed start to the summer season many hotel, restaurant, and shop owners sought in Eastern New England, but business was hot enough for tourism officials to declare they have finally shaken off the lingering effects of a recession that for years kept many people from traveling beyond their backyards.

“It’s been a slow but steady recovery,” said Evan Smith, chief executive of Discover Newport, the marketing agency for the Rhode Island resort area.

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Based on state lodging and meals tax data, Smith said, the Newport tourism scene suffered a nearly 10 percent decline in revenues after the financial disaster of 2008, But this year, he said, the city’s tourism industry could grow by 3 percent, based on advanced hotel bookings and the crowds he saw on Newport’s streets over the holiday.

“Because of the mediocre weather this past weekend, the beaches didn’t get off to a fast summer start, but the Newport mansions, restaurants, shops, and lodging were all crowded and did well,” Smith said.

At the Hydrangea House Inn, co-owner Dennis Blair said middle-class customers — including teachers and police officers — have returned to his 10-room bed and breakfast on Newport’s famous Bellevue Avenue. That’s an important indicator, he said.

“We saw an uptick in their bookings during the off season earlier this spring, and it’s continued right through the holiday weekend,” said Blair.

Tourism industry officials in other parts of the region report equally encouraging signs of a rebound this spring, though not necessarily a boom.

On Cape Cod, off-season room occupancy rates were essentially flat through the first three months of 2014 compared with the first quarter of last year, according to data from the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. That followed a flat summer for hotel bookings last summer.

But room prices edged up to an average of $230 in August 2013 — a 10 percent gain from the depths of the recession — and the chamber reported prices during the first three months of this year rose by up to 10 percent. Officials said that shows hotel owners are confident the economy will continue to steadily improve and that consumers will spend more on vacations.

Wendy Northcross, chief executive of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, said hotel and other tourism data signal the Cape has shed its recession hangover. And advanced hotel bookings and other tourism indicators, such as the start next month of daily New York-Hyannis flights via JetBlue, suggest 2014 is going to be “excellent,” said Northcross.

In Maine, Chris Fogg, executive director of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce, said tourism activity in his popular vacation town on Mount Desert Island increased by 8 percent last year compared with 2012, based on meals and lodging tax data. Though he didn’t have numbers, Fogg said hotel bookings so far this year are “already really strong.”

In addition, 140 cruise ships are scheduled to stop at Mount Desert Island this year, up from 135 in 2013, bringing more than 175,000 passengers to Bar Harbor’s small downtown, said Fogg. Most of the ships come from New York, Boston, Quebec, and Nova Scotia.

“We’re confident it’s going to be a very good summer for us,” he said. “Everything is pointing in the right direction.”

In Jamestown, R.I., John Recca said the two businesses he co-owns — the Narragansett Café and 2-year-old Jamestown Fish — enjoyed an 8 percent growth spurt last year compared with 2012.

Based on the first four months of 2014, and foot traffic over the holiday weekend, Recca is counting on the upcoming summer season being at least as strong.

“There just seems to be more confidence,” he said. “Everything comes down to confidence. There seems to be a lot more positive thinking out there about the economy.”

Charlie Holder, general manager of the Midtown Oyster Bar & Grill in downtown Newport, said he previously worked at two other Newport-area restaurants where revenues fell by about 10 percent during the downturn. By last year, he said, the numbers had slowly crept back up to about prerecession levels.

Holder started working at the 400-seat Midtown Oyster Bar when it opened last June, so there weren’t any Memorial Day comparisons to make. But looking out at Newport’s busy sidewalks around noon last Saturday, Holder said he had “no doubt” about the economic forecast.

“We’ve already had a very strong spring, despite the cool weather,” he said. “It’s already a good holiday weekend, also despite the weather. It’s definitely been a good start to the summer season.”

Jay Fitzgerald can be reached at jayfitzmedia@gmail.com.

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