LOWELL — Nine-year-old Joe Hitzman of St. Paul traveled the farthest to hop aboard the 2 o'clock trolley one day at Lowell National Historical Park.
"Your prize is bragging rights," joked Cathy Neveux, a park ranger, speaking into a microphone, as the turn-of-the-century street car clanged along Dutton Street.
Colin Harbison of Fairfax, Va., brought 9-year-old twin sons Aidan and Nathan to learn about the city's glory days during the Industrial Revolution. "I never knew Lowell was a city built just for industry," said Harbison, 37, who grew up in Amherst.
Allan Christopher drove from Bedford, N.H., with his wife and three grandchildren for a tour of the Pawtucket Canal. "The boat ride is the attraction for us," said Christopher, 72. "It was only a half-hour drive from home, too."
Summer tourism is in high gear in Lowell and other historic spots north of Boston. Falling gas prices and hot, sunny days have given the industry its best start since the recession struck in 2008, industry watchers said.
"Things have turned around," said Deborah Belanger, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau, one of the state's 16 regional tourism councils. "It's not to where it was before the recession, but we've held our own. . . . I really think the summer months are going to be good for us."
In Gloucester and Rockport, advance bookings are strong at inns and motels. "People love our beaches," said Peter Webber, senior vice president of the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce. "The good weather we had in April got people coming up here, at least for day trips. The season started early."
Cape Ann Motor Inn, a 31-room motel on Long Beach in Gloucester, was full for the Fourth of July. Bookings are running at 80 percent for the rest of the month and into August, owner Brad Pierce said.
"It's slowly been coming back," said Pierce, who has owned the inn for 39 years. "The economy has been very tough the last few years. . . . With gas prices expected to keep going down, I think it's going to be a good summer."
Massachusetts gas prices dropped one cent as of last Monday, to an average of $3.36 per gallon, well down from $3.89 in April, according to AAA of Southern New England.
The decline bodes well for a region dependent on day-trippers and visitors who want short getaways. "Our target market is New England, New York, Canada . . . places that are no more than a day away," Belanger said. "The lower gas prices go, the better we'll fare."
But lower gas prices aren't always a big factor for vacationers such as Harbison, who said he always drives from Virginia to visit family in Amherst. "The prices are cheaper, but driving is always still cheaper than flying," he noted.
From 2006 to 2010, travel spending in Essex and Middlesex counties hovered around $2.6 billion each year, a figure that includes hotel stays, restaurants, and retail purchases, according to the most recent data from the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.
High gas costs and the sluggish economy put a damper on business in recent years. "I haven't raised my prices in six years," said Pierce, whose inn is open year-round. "If had raised them, I wouldn't have been full. I'd rather be 100 percent full."
As the economy soured, state budget cuts slashed funding to regional tourism councils, and a visitor center on Interstate 495 in Chelmsford was shut down. In Salisbury, the Maria Miles Visitor Center reopened in April after two years of periodic closings. In May, the center on Interstate 95 south had 19,000 visitors, most of them from northern New England and Canada, said Linda Brown, the center's manager.
"Visits so far have been fabulous," Brown said. "It's full-speed ahead for us."
Plum Island Kayak of Newburyport plans to display a kayak at the center, with the hope of luring visitors to paddle along the Merrimack River. "Most of our business is from tourists, people coming to vacation in town," said owner Ken Taylor, who started the business 10 years ago. "A lot of people pass through that center, and I don't want to miss the opportunity to catch their attention."
Taylor, who added paddleboards to his fleet this summer, said sunny weekends have been a boon. "As soon as the weather gets hot, my phones start ringing," he said.
Visitors are trekking to other parts of the region, too.
On Cape Ann, 2,200 people popped into visitor centers in Gloucester and Rockport, and about 700 calls were logged from May 15 to June 15. The chamber also launched a 15-member tourism council to promote the industry. "We're really trying to sharpen our focus on tourism," Webber said.
Salem Maritime National Historic Site had an 18 percent increase in visitors for the first six months of this year, compared with the same period in 2011. The site drew 737,073 total visitors last year, according to the National Park Service.
Friendship, a replica 18th-century merchant ship, returned to Derby Wharf on June 9 after nine months in drydock. Carpentry and rigging repairs must be completed, but the ship will be open on most days for tours. "People really missed having her here," said Jonathan Parker, chief of interpretation and visitor services. "We chose to bring her back while final repairs are made so that the public may enjoy her."
In Lowell, canal boat tours are a highlight of summer at the national park that drew 510,000 visitors last year. The park, which has 125 employees in summer, recounts the history of the water-powered textile industry during the Industrial Revolution.
"We're really focused on engaging the visitor," said Celeste Bernardo, the park's superintendent. "Our rangers aren't going to talk at you. . . . I think people are very surprised when they come to this park how much we have to offer."
Some younger visitors liked what they saw.
"I took a lot of pictures," said Joe Hitzman, the prize-winning young tourist from Minnesota, swinging a silver digital camera in his right hand. "My favorite was the [canal] gate. I liked that it had, like a handle, and it took more than one person to move it."
"I really liked seeing the loom and how it worked," said Courtney Christopher, 10, as she practiced weaving in the children's area of the visitor center. "It's a lot of fun just walking around Lowell."
Kathy McCabe can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKMcCabe.