See the U.S.A., Win a Chevrolet
By Colin Quinn, Special to Stateline
Stop by Alaska for free salmon. Trek across Kansas and win a car. Look for TV promos of the Terminator marketing the Golden State. Or, for a walk on the wild side, take in elk mating in Pennsylvania.
Summer is prime time for states to bag vacation visitors and sought-after tourist dollars -- and state and local tourism officials are pouring on the gimmicks and giveaways to entice leisure seekers after a spate of lackluster vacation seasons.
In spite of rising gasoline prices, a troubled economy and the threat of terrorism, the Travel Industry Association of America predicts a 3.25 percent increase in leisure travel this summer.
"It looks to be a great summer," said Cathy Keefe, spokeswoman for the travel association. "It's the first time in years we've had an increase in spending by leisure travelers."
Some lucky day-tripper to the Cowtown Museum of Wichita, Kan., or the Woodlands Weiner Dog Nationals in Kansas City, Kan., could win a 2004 Chevy Malibu, digital camera or a mountain bike in the Kansas Mega Gigantic Get Away From It All Summer Blastoff You Won't Believe It Til You See It Giveaway.
Out-of-towners, or Kansans who travel more than 100 miles from home, can enter by sending in a photograph from a designated tourist site. Kansas is hoping to keep tourism dollars from going out of state, such as to nearby Branson, Mo., said Kansas Department of Commerce public information officer Sally Lunsford.
Valdez, Alaska, a town of 4,100 better known for its proximity to the mammoth 1989 oil spill than as a must-see tourist stop, is offering a freebie to get visitors to stop by the glacier-encrusted community: a cleaned, gutted, vacuum-sealed pink salmon. The enticement is being promoted by Dave Cobb, the Valdez Fisheries Association's business manager, who decided to put to use last year's substantial salmon haul close to 22 million fish.
"We are an intermediary port," Cobb explained. "We are easy to give up."
Tourism is big business for states, falling just behind manufacturing and technology as a top industry, according to the travel association. Americans spent $462 billion on domestic travel in 2002. Even so, many states are running tourist promotions on reduced budgets this summer. The war in Iraq and the threat of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS, last spring influenced how much legislators designated to travel promotion for this year's budget, said Dexter Koehl, vice president of public relations and communications for the travel association.
The hottest tourist spots -- California, Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania and New York might not need to work as hard to draw tourists and dollars. But regardless of its stature in the vacation food chain, each state is trying to make itself the place to be this summer.
Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) took Michigan's tourism push into her own hands last week. In a promotional tour dubbed the Hidden Treasures Showcase, she kayaked, rafted and camped her way around the Great Lakes State, even taking a high-octane spin around the Michigan International Speedway with NASCAR celebrity Jeff Gordon.
The primary goal of the event was to promote in-state tourism, but the jaunt got so much media attention that officials now harbor hopes it will bring in tourists from elsewhere, said Liz Boyd, Granholm's press secretary.
Nevada, home of the gambling mecca of Las Vegas, is casting its net for tourists all the way to China. Lt. Gov. Lorraine Hunt led a delegation June 11 to open a tourism office in Beijing and head a nine-day tourism-building tour in Asia. Even though there currently are no direct flights from China to Nevada, 93% of the more than 250,000 Chinese tourists who come to the United States every year find their way to Nevada, according to Bruce Bommarito, executive director of the Nevada Tourism Commission. Chinese tourists are the highest spending travelers in the world, and 300 million Chinese are considered wealthy, Bommarito said.
"We love millionaires," Bommarito said. "They're a very lucrative market."
California is advertising one of its many natural resources to attract visitors: its new governor, movie star Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), aka the Terminator. Following a string of successful promotional ads that featured celebrities Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood and chef Wolfgang Puck, California is running TV commercials in Portland, Ore., Phoenix and Seattle featuring Schwarzenegger and first lady Maria Shriver walking on a beach, welcoming viewers to the state.
And California isn't the only state trying to use its governor's star power. Although he doesn't have Schwarzenegger's Hollywood pedigree, Maryland Gov. Bob Ehrlich (R) is giving acting a shot. In a TV commercial, Ehrlich drops by a family's house and fixes the ceiling fan so the couple can traipse across the state.
Pennsylvania, already famous for the Liberty Bell, the Pocono Mountains and Amish country, is looking to grow its tourism industry still further by trying to bait tourists to the Pennsylvania Wilds for wilderness exploration and bugling, a term used for the elk mating call. The best time to hear the elks' calls, which sound a bit like the high-pitched frequencies of whales conversing, is in the fall during rutting season. The north-central region of the state features more than 100 species of birds, 15,000 black bear and a herd of 800 free- roaming elk, but still needs a more solid infrastructure before it's ready for a big influx of visitors, said Pennsylvania Tourism Office spokeswoman Carrie Fischer.
One North Carolina legislator sought to boost tourism revenues in the country's sixth most-visited state by shortening the school year and extending the summer vacation season. State Rep. Connie Wilson (R) proposed to end public schools by June 10 and begin no earlier than Aug. 25 beginning with the 2004-2005 school year to ensure time for family vacations. Wilson predicted the measure would create $1 billion in direct and indirect revenue and $70 million in taxes. The bill is pending review by a House committee.