By Rep. Lauren H. Carson
The beauty of our state is unbounded — from the sparking beaches of Newport and Aquidneck Island to the rugged shoreline of Beavertail; from the historic landmarks that dot the capital city and Blackstone Valley to the fields, streams and woodlands of the western part of the state. We have arguably the best restaurants in the region if not the nation, history at every turn and a diversity of traditions and cultures that adds to the richness of the state.
With all this to offer, it is unfortunate we don’t do a better job of promoting the entire state of Rhode Island. We need to reorganize and re-energize our efforts to make Rhode Island — not just a city here or a beach there — a destination for tourists and the money they bring with them. This will be good for business.
Rhode Island invests just under $7 million annually in tourism. But our neighboring states have much more aggressive marketing budgets. Connecticut revitalized its tourism budget in 2012 by committing $24 million, and Massachusetts spent $16 million in Fiscal Year 2014. On average, states spend nearly $3 per capita to promote tourism. In Rhode Island, it’s less than a half dollar. Clearly, Rhode Island is not keeping pace in the region and our lack of investment is affecting our tourism bottom line.
As the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation reported in a comprehensive tourism marketing and branding investment plan issued in December, the lack of an effective, overarching state brand and marketing initiative has resulted in a loss in market share nationally and resulted in more tourism dollars going to nearby states instead. The report proposed that a $4 million investment in a state branding campaign could result in massive growth of tourism and tourist dollars in the state. That level of funding and marketing could be expected to attract between 500,000 and 670,000 new visitors to Rhode Island. Those visitors could be expected to spend between $210 million and $280 million in the state, generating between $9 million and $12 million in state sales and occupancy taxes. For these reasons, I have introduced legislation (2015-H 5914) that would appropriate $4 million to the Tourism Division for promoting the whole state as a brand.
Tourism is a thriving sector of the Rhode Island economy. The Volvo Ocean Race, a prestigious around-the-world race held every three years, chose Newport as the only North American port for this global event. Over 12 days last month, 135,000 people visited the Volvo Village at Fort Adams State Park, with a direct economic impact to the state expected to be between $40 million and $100 million. One hotel search site recently named Newport one of the country’s Top 50 cities to visit and one of America’s most sought-after vacation spots. Now that’s economic development.
This is a business decision: Invest in the wonders of Rhode Island and continue to enjoy the economic returns that our tourism economy has been delivering. Business acumen tells me to fund the parts of the system that are producing economic returns, design a coordinated statewide organizational strategy that will support local economic expansion and make increases in overall statewide investments to support and to compete with our neighboring states.
I also propose that any new statewide marketing campaign report regularly to the General Assembly. I would like to see an executive summary on our new statewide marketing programs, to include measurements on the return on our investments, trends and data so that the Assembly may better understand the results of our market strategies.
I urge the leadership of the General Assembly to take heed of the Commerce RI report and commit the funds necessary to create a state brand to better sell Rhode Island as a tourist destination, while continuing to support the good work being done on the local tourism level. We have so much to offer, but we need to do a much better job of convincing others to visit Rhode Island and see it all for themselves.
Lauren H. Carson (D-Dist. 75, Newport), currently serving her first term, is a member of the House Committee on Small Business and the House Committee on Oversight.