Before spring arrived, organizers had completed their most aggressive domestic and international marketing outreach and added hundreds of new programs to existing attractions, setting the stage for what they hoped would be a spectacular tourism season in communities south of Boston.
But success would have to wait, as tourism became an ancillary afterthought in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings in April.
“That kind of threw things into confusion,” said Paul Cripps, executive director of the Plymouth County Convention and Visitors Bureau . Some of the tour buses heading for local communities canceled altogether, he said, “and some of the buses that were coming into Boston rerouted and came down here. So it broke the normal stream for everyone.”
A damp and chilly Memorial Day weekend followed a month later, threatening to send an already-sputtering start of the season into chaos. But as the first half of the tourism season winds down, local officials said, the number of visitors is nearly on par with last year’s figures, thanks in part to a marketing blitz that led to an uptick in international visitors and so-called day-trippers. And the area’s popular fall attractions are expected to salvage the remainder of the season, they said.
“We definitely have momentum. We’re seeing business come back slowly, but it’s coming back,” Cripps said. “If not for the compounding factors, we would’ve had a banner year. Instead we’re looking at having a very good year overall.”
Admissions and retail sales at Plimoth Plantation , which had about 350,000 visitors last year, are down by about 11 percent since its opening for the season in March, said spokeswoman Sarah Macdonald.
While tour group cancellations after the bombings and the poor weather in May contributed to the slow start, the absence of the living history museum’s main attraction, the Mayflower II, also discouraged visitors, Macdonald said. The replica of the 17th-century ship that brought the Pilgrims to Plymouth was undergoing unexpected but urgent repairs that kept it away from its berth on the Plymouth waterfront through most of the summer.
Some neighboring business owners reported losses of up to 20 percent during the months that the Mayflower II was away. But from the ship’s absence arose an opportunity for less-frequented attractions in Plymouth and surrounding communities, said Paula Fisher, director of marketing at the regional tourism agency.
Places like the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, the Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton, and the Alden House Historic Site in Duxbury benefited from day-trippers looking for alternatives to the Mayflower II, she said.
“It opened up a chance for people to do further searching than they would’ve, especially people who are usually here for half a day,” she said.
Adams National Historical Park in Quincy has already reached its annual average of 200,000 visitors this season, despite losing $123,000 to automatic federal spending cuts in March, said Caroline Keinath, the facility’s deputy superintendent.
“At a minimum, we feel obligated to maintain the level of services so that people have access to the presidential homes,” Keinath said. “Where it really affects us will be in the long term as we try to remain relevant to the community. We may not be able to engage in as many activities.”
In Hull, which relies heavily on the summer months for its tourism season, there has been an increase in hotel reservations and restaurant visits this year, said Corinne Leung, treasurer at the Hull Nantasket Chamber of Commerce .
“It was much improved from prior years,” Leung said, adding that since expanding its marketing efforts with those of the Plymouth County Development Council, the town also experienced an increase in international visitors. “We marketed ourselves as being a resort town: You’re just a boat ride away from Boston.”
Denis Hanks, executive director of the Plymouth Area Chamber of Commerce, said that promoting Plymouth, the largest magnet for visitors on the South Shore, helps tourism in the entire region, which benefits from the spillover effect.
Tourism is estimated to be a $325 million industry in Plymouth, said Lee Hartmann, the town’s planning and development director, with hotel and motel stays generating $17.5 million in revenue and $1.05 million in taxes last year.
Marketing over the past year included airline and television spots promoting Plymouth as an international destination, as well as packing the calendar with more events, like road races and outdoor concerts, to attract local visitors, Hanks said. He hopes the efforts will pay off this fall for such perennial attractions as King Richard’s Faire in Carver, increasingly popular cranberry harvest tours, and, of course, Thanksgiving.
“That’s our holiday,” he said.
Fisher, the marketing director at the Plymouth County bureau, said the next two months are crucial to the area’s tourism industry because they have the capability of generating as much, if not more, revenue than the spring and summer months combined.
“Where we have families and couples in the summer, now we start to see the motor coach groups with 30, 40, 50 people, and the school groups,” Fisher said. “It’s a different type of crowd, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s really close” to the numbers in the first half of the year.
Recent surveys by two popular travel booking websites indicated that Boston was high on the list for travelers last month and over the Labor Day weekend, said Pat Moscaritolo, CEO of the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The last couple of weeks, he said, were strong in terms of international, leisure, convention, meeting, business, and corporate travelers. But, Moscaritolo added, the biggest trend is day-trippers who come to Boston, but also go to other parts of the state or New England.
Operators of fall-dependent attractions, such as Jeff LaFleur, grower and owner at Mayflower Cranberries in Plympton, and Bonnie Shapiro, founder and producer of King Richard’s Faire, said they are hoping for good weather and some of that Boston spillover.
LaFleur said he sold out of tickets last month for tours that allow visitors to don waders and help harvest cranberries in the bogs. To accommodate the growing number of visitors to his farm, LaFleur will open a week early this year, extending his short season to now run from Oct. 11 through Oct. 26.
Shapiro, overseeing a festival that convenes on weekends and holiday Mondays from Labor Day to Columbus Day, said she had one of her best seasons last year, and is hoping her recent partnership with the Plymouth County tourism agency widens the Renaissance fair’s appeal among both local and international visitors.
Cripps, head of the visitors bureau, said if the weather holds up, the region will be able to recover from the slow start to the tourism season.
“The ship is back, the cranberry harvest is coming, the leaves are changing, we have the parade before Thanksgiving, and then Thanksgiving,” he said. “So we expect a very successful season in comparison to last year.”