SALEM — Tourist after tourist, cameras hanging dutifully from their necks, strolled up to the visitor center, a traditional first stop for sightseeing in this day-tripper’s town.
But the doors wouldn’t budge, and the signs bluntly told the tale. Closed until further notice, on account of the government shutdown.
A closed visitor center in tourist-friendly Salem? In October, of all months? It must be the witching hour.
“Awful,” said Delores Leblanc, visiting from Mississippi and speaking for many disappointed tourists Wednesday. “Just awful.”
In a city chockablock with psychic shops and all manner of witch kitsch, the closure of the visitor center, along with the historic Custom House and a popular tall ship, could hardly have come at a worse time. More than 250,000 people visit Salem in October, taking in a monthlong array of “Haunted Happenings,” and at least 75,000 more come on Halloween night.
Salem’s rich history, from literary to maritime, draws nearly 1 million visitors annually. But the city is best known for the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, and features myriad businesses with haunted and spooky themes.
Tourism generates an estimated $100 million annually, about 25 percent of which comes in October.
“It’s the biggest month for everybody here,” said Kate Fox, who directs Destination Salem, the city’s office of tourism. “We spend all year telling visitors to set their GPS to 2 New Liberty Street (the address of The National Park Service Regional Visitor Center). It isn’t fair to them for their welcome to be a piece of paper saying the National Park is closed.”
On a busy weekend, the center receives well over 10,000 people. But on this day, the building drew only frustrated looks and dismissive waves, an easy symbol for Washington gridlock.
To fill the void, volunteers are handing out maps and brochures at a makeshift visitor center in front of the federal center, doing their best to help people get their bearings.
The city also brought in portable toilets, replacing a key amenity of the visitor center.
Visitors, while somewhat annoyed the center was closed, were grateful for the help.
“We’ve had people borderline-hugging us,” said Julie Arrison, site manager of the historic Phillips House who was greeting visitors Wednesday. “We’re doing what we can to make sure everybody feels welcome in Salem.”
Arrison and other volunteers told tourists that while virtually all the most popular sites were open as usual, the tall ship and Custom House were closed for the duration of the shutdown. No ranger tours for now.
“You can still walk by and take photos,” Arrison said.
City officials said they didn’t anticipate the closures to affect tourism during the busy month but acknowledged that the “logistics are not ideal.”
“I don’t expect this will keep people away,” said Kim Driscoll, Salem’s mayor. “We’ve pulled together, and everyone’s trying to be a good ambassador.”
While the city is clearly hoping the park facilities will reopen soon, most visitors this month are interested in Halloween-themed attractions, from witch houses to wax museums, she said.
On Wednesday, many tourists seemed unfazed by the closures, saying they were too happy about the beautiful weather to worry much about it. Most seemed content to just wander through the city, with no particular sightseeing agenda, or might sit back and let the tour buses do the work.
But others, coming to the visitor center directly after arriving at the parking lot across the street, said they had counted on the center as a springboard for the day. And tourism officials worried that visitors would miss out on major sights, and wouldn’t receive a formal welcome.
“My frustration is that people won’t have that smiling, welcoming face,” Fox said.
Down by the water, near the tall ship Friendship of Salem, a replica of a cargo ship built in the late 1700s, visitors could only look on from the shore —
“This is so sad,” said a woman named Pat, visiting from Florida. “We pay for this. Our tax dollars.” She was too angry to say any more.
Nearby, day-trippers snapped pictures of the Custom House, a grand brick building where Salem native Nathaniel Hawthorne once worked. Michelle Welsh, a New Hampshire resident who decided on a whim to spend her day off in Salem, said it never crossed her mind that anything might be closed.
“Didn’t even think about it,” she said.
Behind her was a park ranger cruiser, parked near the walkway. But no ranger was in sight.