A recent state-commissioned report by Global Insight found that one of every 10 Rhode Islanders owes their job to tourism; that about eight million visitors came from a dis-tance of greater than 50 miles in 2006; that Rhode Island keeps 61 cents of every dollar spent by visitors; that approximately 40 percent of local restaurant revenue is due to visitors; and that tourism is responsible for five percent of the state’s total gross product.
Back in the ’80s, as awareness spread about the economic value of tourism, chambers of commerce around the state helped to bring about the rise of the state’s regional tourism councils, says David C. DePetrillo, the state’s longtime director of Tourism. “It wasn’t a homogenous tourism concept,” DePetrillo says. “We were trying to work with local people and contacts. I think it was a natural progression.”
Asked whether the current approach involving a bevy of independent tourism councils is wasteful, DePetrillo responds by noting how the General Assembly designated a per-centage of the state hotel tax for the groups in 1986. “If legislators felt it was important, I think it’s important for us to work with each of these organizations,” he says. DePetrillo, who does not perceive duplication of efforts between the state Tourism division and the regional councils, says the two groups work closely together on a regular basis.
One observer points to what he calls an unprecedented amount of collaboration among different tourism concerns, such as an effort in which the Providence/Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau is reaching out to taxi drivers, concierge desk personnel, and others who interact with tourists to update them on local events.
State tourism officials say they ag-gressively seek the tourist trade, targeting visitors from such nearby states as Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, and also Germany and England, in part by generating the equivalent of millions of dollars in advertising with favorable travel press. During one tourism jun-ket featuring hundreds of tour operators, attendees clamored to sample jonnycakes prepared by Kenyon’s Grist Mill — an example, they say, of how the state does more with less.
Yet Leonard Lardaro, a professor of economics at the University of Rhode Island, says, “The obvious question is, do we really need that many separate agencies to do this for a state of this size? I think it’s a little bit silly.” And as with many things in the state, Lardaro says, he suspects there’s a lack of sober analysis underpinning the state’s approach to tourism.
Similarly, former Brown University professor Darrell West says that without greater coordination “you don’t get the economies of scale that allow the state to achieve maxi-mum impact. It’s a classic Rhode Island problem, where everyone wants to do their own thing.”
In the only recent examination of the state’s approach to tourism, an 18-member advisory panel assembled by Governor Donald L. Carcieri in 2003 made a series of recommendations, including the creation of a single tourism structure (with continued separate entities for Newport County and the Providence/Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau). Doing this, as two panel members wrote in a November 2003 Providence Journal op-ed, would “generate greater productivity through consolidation of overhead costs, eliminating duplicative staff and administrative activities, and increased collaboration.”