Former Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s 2009 decision to cut the state’s tourism marketing budget to $1 has had some consequences. Perhaps most visible was the removal of the state from a map of New England on a website designed to attract international tourism to the region.
Despite that move, Karen Senich, executive director of the Commission of Culture and Tourism, said she believes Connecticut can pick up where it left off with the Discover New England under Connecticut’s new governor.
The state’s relationship with the group is important because the New England brand is better known abroad than any of its individual states and is successful in attracting international tourists to the region, Senich said.
When asked if the state’s relationship with the group was damaged by its financial delinquency Senich seemed confident it hadn’t been and said that the group has even been providing some behind the scenes support.
“Not at all. We’re a very close-knit group,” she said following a presentation Thursday to the legislature’s Commerce Committee. “Even though we weren’t members, travel writers, tour operators, people who wanted to come to Connecticut who expressed that interest were still sent to Connecticut. They were not sent elsewhere. “
Despite those close ties, there’s no mention of Connecticut anywhere on the site billed as the official tourism site for the New England states. But Senich said it was nothing personal.
“They made a decision to remove us from the website because we hadn’t paid our dues in, it’s now been over a year. That was a business decision that they made,” she said.
The $1 marketing budget was a sharp drop off when compared to the $4.3 million it received the year before.
But despite virtually no marketing funds from state government, tourism remains one of the only areas in the budget that actually makes money, Senich told the Commerce Committee. It brings in over $1 billion in state and local revenue, she said. Without the industry every household in the state would pay $950 more in taxes, she said.
It also employs around 110,000 in both skilled and unskilled positions, which cannot be moved out of state, she said.
But the state’s continued status as a tourism destination is uncertain as long the commission has no funds to market it.
“It’s simple—if we don’t market people will not come,” Senich said. “We are aware of the work that needs to be done to improve Connecticut’s standing as a tourism destination. We need to get back into the business of marketing this state.”
And she has plans to do just that.
“We stand ready and able to embark on a much needed branding campaign to define the state with a compelling brand image. To be the platform for the state’s regional and private sector marketing efforts,” she said. “We need to create a strategic marketing plan for growing tourism in Connecticut, a consumer driven roadmap based on market research with industry input to find innovative and creative strategies.”
But plans require funds so Senich will likely be paying close attention as Gov. Dannel Malloy prepares his budget. His first budget address is scheduled for Feb. 16.
As a candidate, Malloy promised to restore a marketing budget to the Commission of Culture and Tourism.
“The idea that we have a state government that’s put exactly $1 into promoting tourism is an embarrassment to me as resident of Connecticut,” Malloy said at a debate in September. Then he said he favored spending $15 million to promote tourism.
On Thursday Senich said she was confident the new governor would make good on his campaign promise.
“The governor has committed to making sure that Connecticut markets itself as a destination. So he remains committed to that,” she said, adding that she has recently been in contact with members of his administration.
Malloy told reporters he hadn’t forgotten the remarks but used language a bit more cautious than he had before the elections.
“I think the arts are important, I think culture is important, I think tourism is important. We’re going to try and address those subjects in the budget,” he said but added, “I have to tell you with a $3.5 to $3.7 billion deficit I’m sure I’m going to disappoint a lot of people with respect to what they would like to be there in the budget. But we’re going to do the best we can in trying to present a budget that we can stand behind and we’re still a few weeks away from that.”
He was firm, however, that the state would again be part of New England around the time the summer tourism season arrives.
“I intend to reunite Connecticut with New England as soon as the budget would allow,” Malloy said. “I don’t know what the timeline is for being rejoined. I clearly intend to honor a commitment I made during the campaign to have a very sizeable budget devoted to tourism as of July 1. So I have to make sure what the deadline is for rejoining New England, but I can’t imagine we wouldn’t do that at least as of July 1.”