Connecticut lawmakers urged to spend more on tourism efforts

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Some state lawmakers and business leaders hope this could be the year to better promote Connecticut as a tourist destination following years of tight budgets.

Ideas include overhauling the state’s slogan, “Connecticut: Still Revolutionary;" devoting more of the state hotel tax to tourism promotional efforts; improving signage for attractions; creating a five-year strategic tourism plan; and reopening welcome centers or expanding their hours. Advocates contend the state is losing out to other states in the battle for much-needed tourism dollars.

“I think there’s a lot of bipartisan support for improving our tourism marketing and for better supporting our tourism industry across the state,” said Rep. Caroline Simmons, D-Stamford, co-chairman of the General Assembly’s Commerce Committee. “I think unfortunately it’s come down to our difficult budget deficits.”

Simmons’ committee recently advanced wide-ranging legislation aimed at boosting the tourism industry in Connecticut, including the state’s promotional efforts.

“We’re getting crushed by other states for marketing,” she said.

A 2018 Tourism Marketing Review , released in January by the Connecticut Office of Tourism, shows Connecticut’s budget is vastly outpaced by the seven nearest states, which are spending a combined total of $114 million on tourism marketing to reach similar target audiences. Connecticut is currently spending more than $4 million a year, while Rhode Island is spending $5.5 million; Massachusetts $10 million and New York $70 million. Only Vermont is spending less in the region, at approximately $3.1 million a year, according to the report.

Various entities, ranging from the Blue Ribbon Panel on Tourism — a group of industry leaders led by Democratic House Speaker Joe Aresimowicz of Berlin — to the tourism policy committee that advised Democratic Gov. Ned Lamont during his transition, have called for greater investment in tourism promotion. They’ve also called for transferring 25 percent of state hotel tax revenue to the state’s tourism account, compared to the current 10 percent. That would bring tourism marketing to pre-recession levels of about $31.6 million, according to Lamont’s advisers.

“Unfortunately, it appears that we have lost our way in promoting and benefiting from this economic generator,” wrote Ed Dombroskas, the former executive director of the Connecticut Office of Tourism and a member of Aresimowicz’s commission, in written testimony to state lawmakers. “Instead of expanding, recent statistics show our tourism economy is declining. A series of unfortunate decisions have had the effect of communicating to potential visitors from out of state and across the country and world that we are not interested in welcoming guests and businesses.”

A former businessman, Lamont has voiced support for the state’s tourism industry, which is linked to about 80,000 jobs in Connecticut. He has also appeared somewhat receptive to spending more money on tourism promotion. Lamont’s proposed budget transferred $250,000 from the now-shuttered Connecticut Open tennis tournament to the statewide tourism marketing account, for a combined total of about $4.4 million a year. But the new governor’s two-year, $43 billion plan still transfers only 10 percent of hotel tax revenues to tourism, even though it increases the state’s hotel occupancy tax rate from 15 percent to 17 percent — a move opposed by the Connecticut Lodging Association, which notes Connecticut already has the highest state hotel tax in the region.

“To increase, would only push visitors to neighboring states and result in loss of revenue,” the association warned in written testimony.

Aresimowicz, who supports a greater focus on tourism, said last week that it remains unclear whether more revenue from the hotel tax will be shifted to tourism this year.

“It’s just what can we manage as we work through the priorities,” he said, referring to upcoming budget negotiations. “It will be considered.”