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Slow start, strong finish for summer tourism

Hotel Commonwealth, just steps from Fenway Park, counts on Red Sox fans to help fill its 149 rooms. After the Sox’ disappointing season last year, general manager Adam Sperling was a bit wary about the prospects for the 2013 summer crowd.

But the team’s surprising run to the top of the American League East helped bring in more fans and last-minute bookings. “Looking back,” said Sperling, “we did the typical strong summer business.”

The resurgence of the Sox was among the welcome developments contributing to a solid summer tourism season that began slowly under the shadow of the Marathon bombings, but ultimately gave way to filled hotel rooms, busy restaurants, and even record attendance at summer favorites like local zoos and harbor cruises.

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The city’s popular Boston Duck Tours, for example, experienced a 20 percent drop in April sales following the bombings, said Bob Schwartz, director of marketing and sales, but business rebounded over the summer months to make up the shortfall. The season ended mostly flat.

Many businesses said they experienced a noticeable pickup after July Fourth. Overall, summer visitors to Boston and Cambridge increased about 3 percent over last year, according to estimates by the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“Toward the end of July Fourth week, it was as if someone turned on the spigot full strength,” said bureau president Pat Moscaritolo. “We’ve been going on really strongly in terms of visitor activity.”

Businesses and industry analysts agreed the April 15 bombings that killed three and injured more than 250 people did not have a lasting negative impact on summer tourism. The bureau responded to the cancellations that followed the attack with a $500,000 media campaign to highlight summertime activities and underscore that Boston was open and ready for visitors.

The Lenox Hotel, situated just yards from the Marathon finish line, closed for eight days and took several weeks to recover from a host of canceled and relocated bookings and events following the bombings. Ultimately, the Lenox ended the summer with occupancy up 2 percent over last year, said Scott Grigelevich, the hotel’s director of sales and marketing.

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Rooms were sold out about half the days from June through August, up slightly from last summer, he said.

Among the brightest spots for local tourism was a jump in international visitors, which increased 10 percent from last summer, according to visitors bureau estimates. The state, meanwhile, is increasing its advertising in foreign markets, targeting Canada, some European countries, Japan, and Latin America, said Betsy Wall, executive director of the Office of Travel and Tourism.

The jump in international visitors provided a boost for restaurants. The Massachusetts Restaurant Association estimated that foreign visitors spent 5 percent more at Boston restaurants than they did last summer. Overall, state meals tax collections in July, the most recent data available, increased 4.6 percent from July 2012, said Bob Luz, chief executive of the industry group.

Nick Zappia, owner The Blue Room restaurant and Belly wine bar in Kendall Square, said he had his best summer in more than a decade. Business in July and August, typically the two quietest months, jumped more than 30 percent over last year, he said.

“We were expecting a busier summer, but this beat expectations,” Zappia said. “After you’ve been here for almost 20 years, you definitely don’t see those types of increases often.”

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Genevieve Wu of Medford posed with her children outside the Tropical Forest at Franklin Park Zoo. Zoo New England, which also includes the Stone Zoo, recorded its best June with 105,000 visitors.
Genevieve Wu of Medford posed with her children outside the Tropical Forest at Franklin Park Zoo. Zoo New England, which also includes the Stone Zoo, recorded its best June with 105,000 visitors.Yoon S. Byun/Globe staff/Globe staff

Foreign visitors also helped lift business at Boston Harbor Cruises, said general manager Alison Nolan. More than 100,000 passengers, including local day-trippers, have set sail on a New England Aquarium Whale Watch since March, a double-digit bump from last year. A few of the company’s other cruises, such as the Salem Ferry and the USS Constitution Cruise, attracted record numbers of passengers.

Another waterfront attraction, the Boston Children’s Museum in Fort Point, saw visitor traffic climb almost 3.5 percent in July and August compared to the same time last year, said Jo-Anne Baxter, the museum’s director of public relations.

Zoo New England, which includes Franklin Park Zoo and Stone Zoo, recorded its best June with 105,000 visitors, said Cynthia Mead, vice president of external affairs. August shaped up as the best month on record with more than 123,000 visitors checking out the new baby giraffe, a seasonal koala exhibit, and warthogs, she said.

Large conventions that lure thousands of people were down this summer compared to last, but are expected to increase next year and fill hotel rooms, duck boats, and restaurants. Perhaps another pennant run by the 2014 Red Sox will do the same.