By CRAIG FREILICH
As the summer travel and tourism season gets under way, local tourism officials are working to recover business lost to a sagging economy and an international bridge closure last year.
“We were down some in 2008-09,” said Ellen Nesbitt of the St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce. But reports she’s heard indicating that this Memorial Day was good for local public and private parks makes her optimistic.
Nesbitt also says the chamber is hopeful about the recently announced initiative to make St. Lawrence County better known as a prime sport fishing destination.
Last year, Nesbitt says, “bridge crossings at Massena and Ogdensburg were down 14 percent. Part of the reason for that is that is when the passport initiative kicked in,” requiring people crossing the border into the U.S., even Canadians and Americans, to have a passport or some other approved method of identification.
And that was also when a dispute between Mohawks and Canadian customs shut down the bridge at Massena for a month, cutting crossings during that month to 7,000 from 91,000 in that month in 2008. “That really affected tourism last summer.”
The occupancy tax, also called the “bed tax,” is one indicator of tourism rates. The tally of the special taxes paid by hotel and motel patrons was also down in 2009, “but not down dramatically.”
12% Bed Tax Drop
The bed tax figures, from the St. Lawrence County Treasurer’s office, show a 12.5 drop in 2009 from 2008. A total of $330,061 was collected in 2007, $358,215 in 2008, and $313,869 in 2009. Nesbitt says the figures for last year represent the first decline in five years.
“People were still traveling. There were a lot of day-trippers, but they wouldn’t show up in the bed tax.”
Meanwhile the county is struggling to keep up its marketing efforts in the face of a steep decline in support from New York State for tourism promotion.
“Now there is little if any state support, as there has been in the past,” Nesbitt says.
As the state budget reportedly nears adoption, Nesbitt says, “we have heard that some tourism funds would be restored,” but it wasn’t clear which programs were being discussed.
State Funding Jeopardized
“In the 2009 budget, there was an appropriation which we should have received in January,” Nesbitt says, but that money seems to have dried up in the Albany budget atmosphere.
“The governor pulled the line from the 2010-11 budget. The two houses of the state legislature said they would restore it, but they’ve come up with two different numbers,” with no word on resolving the difference.
“And it looks like we’ll probably lose it next year as well. Everybody’s working on bare bones, but we’re talking about an industry that brings in money,” Nesbitt notes.
“It makes a difference when you’re trying to market an area with such great attractions – bike trails, ski trails, waterways, fishing, so much more. There are people looking to get away, and we have such great assets. We need to let people know they’re here.”
The county chamber is not completely devoid of resources. Late in May thousands of county travel guides were distributed to highway rest areas around the New York-New Jersey border, and more around Utica.
New Map, Canadian Targeted
“And we are producing a new tourism map. We’re thankful to the St. Lawrence County Legislature for coming up with the matching money for the new travel guide and map.”
The effort to bring travelers down from Canada continues.
Passenger vehicle traffic coming into the county via the bridges crossing the St. Lawrence River at Ogdensburg and Massena has been trending down: 1,278,809 in 2006, 1,275,119 in 2007, 1,258,239 in 2008, and 1,074,704 for 2009 – a decline of 14.6 percent from 2008 to 2209, but Nesbitt notes that traffic across the 1000 Islands Bridge at Alexandria Bay in Jefferson County was down by more than 19 percent last year.
“We’re trying to target the Canadian market, to spend a day, spend a night, spend a few days.
“Most people coming across have a passport, but there is still a question, Is it a hassle at the border? Most times it’s not,” and they are trying to assure travelers of that.
“Bed and breakfasts report they are doing well. We hear anecdotally that their business is okay – not off horribly.”
Nesbitt cites figures that put spending by tourists in the 1000 Islands region in 2008 at $4.3 million compared with $4.1 million in 2009, a decline of 5.8 percent compared to a 13.8 percent decline statewide.
What do tourists spend their money on in St. Lawrence County? In 2009, it was: lodging, $16.5 million; recreation, $3.0 million; food and beverage, $21.7 million; retail and service stations, $13.8; transportation, $2.0 million; and second homes, $44.5 million.
Visitor spending in St. Lawrence County in 2009 was $101.5 million, which generated $6.4 million in local sales, occupancy, and property taxes and $6.6 million in state taxes.
In St. Lawrence County tourism supports 1,769 jobs, officials say.
Nesbitt says that tourism is disproportionately important in this region compared with the whole state.
The 1000 Islands Region (Oswego, Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties) accounts for only one percent of overall state tourism, but “it also represents just under eight percent of the employment in the region.” And according to data from the industry, the 1000 Islands, Catskills and Finger Lakes regions were the best performing in the state in 2009.