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Is RI making the most from its tourism appeal?

Critics call a variety of agencies a wasteful approach in this small state
By IAN DONNIS  |  July 24, 2008
BIG BANG: DePetrillo (left) and Mark G. Brodeur, director of operations for the state Division of
Tourism, say the state gets a big return based on a relatively small tourism budget.

Even those with an appropriately dim view of quintessential Rhode Island boondoggles can agree that the Ocean State has a lot to offer — great beaches, superb restaurants, good nightlife,dynamic arts and culture, a rich sense of history, and a mix of urban and rural settings within short proximity, all tied together with considerable idiosyncrasy.

So if you were going to promote this plate of attractions to potential visitors in other states, what would be the best way to do it?

It’s no small question, for several reasons. Tourism was the source of an estimated $5.6 billion in spending in Rhode Island in 2006, and it’s among the state’s largest in-dustries. And while the smallest state remains a regional laggard when it comes to boosting economic development (see “Can’t anybody here play this game?” News, May 21), Rhode Island’s charms — particularly at a time when higher gas prices are encouraging vacationers to travel closer to home — would seem to offer a potential source for en-hancing state revenue.

When WJAR-TV (Channel 10) recently reported that the state’s toll-free call center for requesting a tourism brochure is located in Missouri, it raised the question of why that op-eration isn’t based here.

And to critics, the array of different entities working to promote tourism — a branch of the state Economic Development Corporation; the Providence/Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau; five independent tourism councils; and city-based departments in Warwick and Providence — represent a wasteful excess of resources, particularly in such a small state.

Ultimately, though, things are less clear-cut. The Missouri-based call center, for example, will be phased-out before year’s end, mostly because the state’s tourism Web site,, has emerged as the preferred information source for tourism inquiries. Meanwhile, Channel 10’s ombudsman found that the station botched part of its report: although a Blackstone Valley Tourism Council call center representative suggested “Federal Hill” when a reporter asked about a destination for Italian restaurants, the sta-tion indicated that it was not initially steered in that direction.

The issue of the numerous councils and departments devoted to tourism is more complex. To some, it’s a clear example of Rhode Island’s traditional hyper-localizing of the delivery of services (schools, police, fire, etc.), in defiance of a more efficient approach. Defenders, who also cite a need to preserve the state’s traditional character, contend the local tourism councils remain best-suited for promoting the distinct attractions of particular regions.

Both sides have legitimate points. It’s also the case that Rhode Island, whose tourism budget is small in comparison with other states, could likely generate a greater return with a bigger investment.

As the Ocean State continues to wrestle with budget woes, the bottom line is that the current approach to promoting tourism isn’t going to change any time soon, leaving un-answered the question of whether there might be a better way.

The making of a new industry
Rhode Island’s tourism industry grew out of necessity — such as the growing economic vacuum dramatized by a major cutback of the US Navy’s Newport presence in 1973. Ten years later, in the same year when the America’s Cup race left Newport, the state held its first governor’s conference on tourism, sparking years of robust growth in that sector.

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