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For tourism in Mystic, it's a season in the sun

By Brian Hallenbeck

Publication: The Day

Published August 05. 2013 4:00AM   Updated August 05. 2013 6:45PM
Tim Cook/The Day
People pause with their ice cream in hand Saturday as they wait for the schooner Mystic to approach the Mystic River Bridge during a busy day in downtown Mystic.

Mystic - To be sure, the local maritime museum can't go dropping a national landmark into the river every summer.

For Mystic's tourism trade, 'tis a pity.

"The Morgan launch was huge," Richard Prisby, general manager of The Whaler's Inn, said last week. "We were booked up that Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. Mystic was full of people."

Indeed, the Seaport's July 21 launching of the restored whaleship Charles W. Morgan proved to be the kind of public event that can make a tourism season - for hotels and restaurants here as well as for the Seaport itself.

Earlier this summer, an exceptionally wet month followed by a nasty heat wave in early July exacted a toll at the Seaport's turnstiles. Then came the launch.

"Up through the end of June, our attendance was down about 3 percent compared to last year at the same time. But in the last several weeks, we've brought it up to even," said Dan McFadden, a Seaport spokesman. "... We anticipate a positive growth year."

Some 4,500 visitors packed the Seaport grounds the day of the launch and thousands more jammed the shore and boats on the Mystic River. Video of the launch, streamed live on the Seaport's website, attracted some 12,000 views the first 24 hours it was available.

"One of the most rewarding things was that people came from Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Maine, New York," McFadden said.

In Mystic, the state's top tourism destination, business this summer promises to top last year.

Ed Dombroskas, executive director of the Eastern Regional Tourism District, which has its headquarters at Olde Mistick Village, attributed the upturn in business to the public's sense that the economy is on better footing than it had been.

"Overall, hotel occupancy is up and attendance at attractions is generally better. We're hearing that retail is doing well," he said. "People are more comfortable about spending a little money."

For some tourism-based businesses, this summer will mark two solid seasons in a row, after a string of off years.

"We're having our best year since ... last year," said Prisby, the general manager of The Whaler's Inn. "We're a little ahead of last year, with the best part of our year - August, September, October - still to go. Why was 2012 so good? It's hard to say. I think people were really tired of being held down. They wanted to cut loose."

Marketing, of course, has a lot to do with any season's success, or lack of it.

For all its attractiveness and "great location" a half-block from the Mystic drawbridge, The Whaler's Inn draws customers because "we do everything we can to get them here," Prisby said.

The region, Mystic in particular, continues to benefit from a "dislocation" in New York and New Jersey markets that are still recovering from last fall's extreme weather, Dombroskas said.

"Just this morning, I had calls from people in Maryland and Georgia who have never been here before and were putting Mystic on their short list," he said. "The first thing they ask about is what is there to do, and then, 'Do you have any deals?'"

Theresa Thesier owns the Mystic & Shoreline Visitor Information Center, a private enterprise that books tours and hotel rooms and sells discounted tickets to attractions. She, too, sounded the things-are-better-than-last-year refrain.

"I think the economy got a little better, or at least it's perceived to be better," she said. "There's not so much moaning about rates, not so much grumbling."

Some say that while Mystic's downtown traffic is heavier than it was a year ago, visitors, individually, are spending less, a phenomenon observed in recent years at casinos from Connecticut to Atlantic City to Las Vegas.

"What I'm hearing is that volumes are higher but people are being thrifty, not spending as much," said Tricia Walsh, president of the Greater Mystic Chamber of Commerce.

August remains a critical month for the tourism business, especially with Labor Day arriving early this year on Sept. 2. Still ahead in Mystic are such stalwarts of the calendar as this coming weekend's Mystic Outdoor Art Festival and the Taste of Mystic food festival Sept. 6-8.

"I expect that when we get to the end of summer, we will have had a good season," Walsh said.

b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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