Regional tourism leaders say they aren't feeling much love from the state's "I Love New York" tourism office as it makes cost-cutting moves that some critics say are hurting one of New York's largest industries.
The state has pulled this year's funding for a 30-year-old matching funds program used by county tourism organizations to attract visitors and is skipping a major travel industry conference being held this week in Florida.
The moves hamper New York as it heads into the summer season so vital to many restaurants, hotels and tourist destinations, especially those upstate, several regional tourism officials said.
"This is our season, this our time, this is when we're luring those travelers and those expendable dollars to our back yards, and the lights are out," said Roberta Byron-Lockwood, president of the Sullivan County Visitors Association in the Catskills. "It's going to be a lost season if something is not done immediately."
The state is proposing to cut tourism funding by 13 percent — from $12.2 million to $10.6 million — as it deals with a $9.2 billion budget gap for the fiscal year that began April 1.
The budget that expired March 30 had included $4.2 million in matching grants to be split among 57 tourism-promotion agencies. County governments typically match the funds, which are then doled out to local and regional tourism organizations that use the money for television ads, brochures, travel guides, websites and other marketing and promotional tools.
However, in March, officials at the Empire State Development Corp., the state agency that oversees the I Love New York office, informed the tourism groups that the matching grants program was being canceled because of the state's budget crisis. Without the state funding, many tourism groups have had to drastically cut back or eliminate advertising campaigns.
For Hamilton County, home to an annual bird-watching event that attracts 250 to 300 to the state's least populated county, the funding cuts meant eliminating the usual half-page, full-color ad in Audubon magazine. Local officials fear that could mean fewer visitors to an area that depends heavily on tourism dollars.
"We can tell the day that magazine hits the newsstand. The phones start ringing," said Bill Osborne, the county's tourism director. "When you're in a rural area as we are, those matching funds are a substantial portion of local tourism funds."
Edward Maitino, managing director of Empire State Development Corp.'s tourism division, said local tourism leaders were well aware that the matching funds program wasn't a sure thing, given the state's dire fiscal situation.
"The industry absolutely knew that the program was in jeopardy because we regularly communicated with them," he said Monday.
Tourists spent $46 billion in New York state in 2009, when the tourist industry employed more than 455,000 workers, according to an ESDC report.
Slashing tourism programs and closing state parks and historic sites — another of the Paterson administration's cost-cutting proposals — doesn't send an encouraging message about the state's tourism trade at a time when the nation's travel industry is showing signs of a revival, said Steven Englebright, chairman of the Assembly Committee on Tourism, Arts and Sports Development.
"Optimism is the real coinage for a recovery from a recession," the Long Island Democrat said. "Closing down the parks and cutting off money for tourism is all part of a retrenchment that really is very shortsighted."
With the unofficial start of summer just three weeks away, there are no funds available for I Love New York to produce a 30-second television ad touting summer tourism, Maitino said. There's also no money to send the office's director of international tourism to the U.S. Travel Association's international trade show, starting this weekend in Orlando, he said.
Because of the belt-tightening, Maitino said I Love New York was putting more emphasis on other methods to boost tourism, including a redesigned website and social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.
"What we're trying to do is impact that traveler in other ways," he said. "We're just trying to maximize the tools we have the best we can."
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