Gov. Gina Raimondo wants to attract more tourists to Rhode Island. As summer winds down, RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay has some ideas.
'Tis the season of sun, cream-colored clouds and the crash and wheeze of surf along the Atlantic coast. You may think there are too many Connecticut and New York license plates in South County this time of year. Well, Raimondo, the Chamber of Commerce types and the restaurant and hotel industry want more.
They’re right, because tourism is a multibillion-dollar industry in Rhode Island. All those camera-snapping, miniature-golf playing, beach-blanket visitors create jobs and pump rooms and meals taxes into our state budget.
Yet, we don’t roll out the welcome mat for those who come to Rhode Island. One glaring example: the lack of a rest area or visitor center anywhere along Route 95 from Watch Hill to WaterFire. This is in sharp contrast to our neighboring New England states, the same states we compete with for tourist dollars.
Driving along the Massachusetts Turnpike, a vacationing family will find roadside welcome centers with fast-food joints, convenience stores, gas stations and that’s not all. They have farmers markets and green space to walk and water your dog. There are big, clean rest rooms with spaces to change an infant’s diapers.
In New Hampshire and Vermont, the states have elaborate tourist promotion centers complete with brochures and interactive touch-screen displays of tourism attractions. New Hampshire has a country store on Route 93 selling such home-grown goodies as maple syrup and those ubiquitous Moose T-shirts that visitors take home to prove they have traveled to the Granite State. New Hampshire even has a state liquor store with wines from around the world at this roadside stop.
Vermont is arguably New England’s most scenic state. You can drive on interstate 91 from Brattleboro to Canada without seeing even one of those annoying billboards advertising the nearest outlet mall or junk-food joint. This may come as a surprise to Rhode Islanders who are used to the visual pollution of blue bugs or flashing headshots of local TV anchor people on the highway. Vermont, which took down billboards in the 1960s, seems to have no problem drawing tourists.
The Green Mountain State once branded itself the "Beckoning Country," and that legacy persists. At a welcome center in Hartford, near the New Hampshire border, a restored train station offers motorists free Green Mountain coffee and a variety of teas, along with an ample supply of picnic tables. A row of Vermont-made handcrafted rocking chairs provide a nice respite before resuming the drive.
All of these tourist centers have guest books where folks can sign up to get emails of tourist promotion information.
Rhode Island once had such a welcome center on Route 95 in Richmond. It opened in May, 1989. In the first three months after the doors opened it was drawing an average of 2,500 visitors a day. Tens of thousands of travelers signed the guest book representing 49 American states and 42 countries.
That center was closed in an austerity move during the state budget shortfall and recession in 2011.
Our state’s tourist promotion also falters in failing to push historic tourism in a state that has a rich history dating to the 17th Century and more historic sites per capita than any other. It is odd that such historically significant venues as the Museum of Work and Culture in Woonsocket, the John Brown House in Providence and the Slater Mill in Pawtucket don’t get more attention..
Rhode Island’s history and attractions are more than just the Newport mansions, WaterFire and dazzling beaches. Boston has done a fine job over the years marketing the city as the cradle of American Liberty through such features as the Freedom Trail. If ever there was a historic, walkable city, with great restaurants to boot, it is Providence. Local restaurateur Bob Burke tried to paint such a history line in downtown Providence but he didn’t get much help pushing it.
Rather than spending millions on branding the state with a slogan, why not start modestly by reopening the Richmond welcome center and promoting what we already have? Rhode Islanders of a certain age remember that the state’s tourist efforts were once linked to the theme "Biggest Little State in The Union." That was lampooned as the "Biggest Little State of Confusion." Maybe we can adopt the favorite of RIPR listeners: "The Greatest Moments Happen in the Smallest State."
One thing we know: We can do much better than "Welcome to Rhode Island, who invited you?!?"
Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:40 and 8:40 and on All Things Considered at 5:44. You can also follow his political reporting and analysis at our `On Politics’ Blog at RIPR.org
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