International tourism is growing in Connecticut and coalitions are expanding to strengthen the trend.
Connecticut has ranked No. 2 among New England states for international visitors for the past three years, according to Lori Harnois, executive director of Discover New England, a tourism cooperative whose board consists of the tourism directors of the six New England states. The 296,000 foreign visitors to Connecticut last year was a distant second to the 1.8 million who visited Massachusetts, Discover New England statistics show.
A tourism tracker memo from Fiveash earlier this year reported summer 2015 visits to Connecticut’s top attractions were up 12 percent, while hotel occupancy rates were up 7 percent and lodging tax receipts were up 4 percent at the end of 2015. Traveler spending in Connecticut rose 3 percent to $8.3 billion in 2013, according to a study by Pennsylvania-based Tourism Economics.
Discover New England helps “a great deal” with overseas marketing efforts, Fiveash said. Transportation initiatives are a key component, he said, citing the September start of an Aer Lingus route to Ireland at Bradley International Airport.
Connecticut tourism leaders recently went on a sales mission to Ireland to meet with tour operators, travel agents and other parties interested leveraging the Aer Lingus service to create more business, Fiveash said. Bradley and Discover New England executives were part of the U.S./Connecticut delegation.
Tourism office representatives attend several international trade shows in the U.S. and abroad every year to make more and stronger connections with international media and other purveyors of information and sales, he said.
‘Gateway to the Northeast’
Bradley has been selling itself as a less-congested alternative to airports in Boston and New York.
“Thanks to the work of our state and industry partners, Connecticut is becoming the new gateway to the Northeast,” Fiveash said. “We continue our outreach abroad, and to help train our individual tourism destination partners to promote their businesses effectively in these markets.”
The Connecticut Airport Authority, which runs Bradley, is a “tremendous asset” to tourism operators as the airport looks to add more international routes, Fiveash said.
Norwegian Air Shuttle ASA, a low-cost carrier based in Norway, is looking to expand U.S. routes and has named Bradley among the airports being considered. Scandinavia is one of the largest markets for Connecticut international tourism, Fiveash said.
Bradley is focused on Aer Lingus, which currently is its only non-stop European route, but is interested in others, said Kevin Dillon, the airport authority’s executive director.
“Currently, our top priority for international service is ensuring that the Aer Lingus service is successful,” he said. “However, we certainly believe that other opportunities exist and could make sense for a variety of other international destinations. We continue to explore a number of other possibilities, but we cannot comment further on any specific discussions at this time.”
Dillon called his authority’s working relationship with the Office of Tourism “close.” The airport authority works with chambers of commerce, community organizations and other state agencies to promote Connecticut attractions, he said. Tourism is not the only important factor in assessing the possible success of a new route, the director said.
“The business community is always a significant component of any route development pitch because business travel is consistent year-round,” Dillon said. “We look at locations where there is demonstrated leisure connectivity for leisure travel, and we try to target those markets in our pitches to the airlines.”
Connecticut also attracts a significant portion of its international visitors from Ireland, the United Kingdom, Germany and Brazil, Fiveash said.
About 155,000 Germans visited New England last year and spent $121 million, Harnois said, making Germany the No. 3 market for New England tourism. Discover New England has had a German language website for about 10 years, she said.
Connecticut was dropped from Discover New England in 2010, when it declined to pay its $100,000 annual fee after the state government cut its tourism budget to $1.00 during the final year of Gov. M. Jodi Rell’s administration. Gov. Dannel P. Malloy returned Connecticut to the group the following year.
Connecticut has been a strong member of the association for most of the time since its 1992 founding, Harnois said.
Nutmeg State’s biggest draws
International tourism in Connecticut usually is at its peak in the fall, due in part to the state’s highly attractive foliage, according to tourism operators.
Shopping, sightseeing and gambling are among Connecticut’s three biggest draws in international tourism. Connecticut is home to two of the world’s largest casinos in Foxwoods Resort Casino and Mohegan Sun, as well as a 15-location off-track betting network run by British-based Sportech Plc. The state lottery is also reporting strong returns from installing keno in bars and restaurants.
Among the most popular places for overseas travelers to visit are The Glass House in New Canaan, the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk, Mystic Aquarium, Mystic Seaport, and Yale University in New Haven, Fiveash said.
The Maritime Aquarium doubled its number of international visitors this year compared with 2015, although the majority of its visitors continue to be Connecticut residents, director of marketing Tina Tison said.
The aquarium hasn’t done anything unusual to drive up foreign traffic, with its latest addition being a new coral reef tank, she said.
“We, as an organization, are attracting more people for day trips and extended vacations,” Tison said. “It’s certainly a great trend. It’s a consistent line of working hard on customer service and offering interesting exhibits more than anything else.”
Most of the international visitors to the Mark Twain House came in September and October, confirming the strong popularity of Connecticut during the fall season, said Jennifer LaRue, the museum’s director of marketing and public relations.
Besides having a visitors center that handles hundreds of international visitors each year, Yale claims to have the longest-running and deepest relationship with China of any American university. The linkage dates back to 1835 with the medical and Christian missionary work of alumnus Peter Parker. Today, Yale has 2,581 international students from 118 countries, according to the admissions department’s website.
China was the No. 1 visitor in terms of spending on New England tourism last year, having spent $413 million, according to Travel Market Insights magazine. It was No. 2 in numbers of visitors with 266,000, trailing only the United Kingdom with 312,000 visitors. U.K. residents spent $220 million in New England last year, the magazine said.
Short travel times work to make Connecticut venues and the state popular, Fiveash said.
“Our size makes it easy for visitors to enjoy all the New England charm and history they’re looking for, plus a variety of more unexpected experiences, with less hassle,” he said.