BY TOM DALTON
---- — SALEM — The National Park Service released a study this week showing the number of visitors and the economic impact of its parks and historic sites around the country.
The numbers for the Salem Maritime National Historic Site are impressive: 756,038 visitors and $40 million contributed to the area economy in 2012, the most recent year for which figures were available.
So is the historic waterfront, with tall ship Friendship and the Custom House, the city’s No. 1 attraction? Is that what brings visitors and dollars to Salem?
The answer, it seems, depends on who is asked. And the truth, it appears, is nobody knows.
If there is a consensus, it is that Salem is called The Witch City for a reason.
“By the numbers, the witch trials are still the largest draw,” said Kate Fox, executive director of Destination Salem, the city’s tourism office.
Few could argue, especially in October, when Halloween hordes descend on the city for Haunted Happenings. On Halloween day alone, crowd estimates have approached 100,000.
Of course, witch-related tourism takes in a lot of territory, from historic sites and memorials, to museums and, arguably, psychics and haunted houses. Figuring out the number of “witch visitors” is virtually impossible because so many patronize for-profit businesses that don’t release figures.
For a single attraction, however, most agree the Salem Witch Museum is still the city’s No. 1 draw — at least, in terms of attendance.
Annual attendance is more than 300,000, according to Biff Michaud of the Witch Museum.
“We’re still the biggest draw in town,” he said.
The Salem Witch House, a city-operated nonprofit and the only attraction with a real tie to the Witch Trials, is another barometer. Attendance jumped in recent years from 18,000 to 27,000 as it displayed more documents and historic information related to the tragedy.
But isn’t “cultural tourism” on the rise, and isn’t that the reason the city is seeing so many more visitors?
There is certainly no bigger local story than the Peabody Essex Museum, which has more than doubled attendance over the past decade to 221,000 last year. An official said they hope to crack 250,000 this year.
The stature of the PEM skyrocketed following a major expansion a decade ago and will grow more, most agree, when they complete a $200 million expansion in a few years. The addition of gallery space has allowed it to bring in blockbusters like the Turner maritime painting exhibit set to open in May.
While he’s not saying the PEM is the top tourism attraction in this city, a museum official feels witches no longer rule the roost.
“I don’t think (witch-related tourism) is the main engine,” said Jay Finney, chief marketing officer at the PEM. “There are too many other things that are going well for Salem.”
Finney stressed that he was speaking “anecdotally,” but pointed to the explosion of festivals, restaurants, new retail stores and special events that bring people to Salem.
Fox, the city’s tourism czar, made a similar observation. While she feels witch history remains the biggest draw, she noted how much the city has grown and in so many different directions.
“What we’re finding from our research,” Fox said, “is people will come just for the witch trial history and get here and say, ‘I had no idea there was a National Park site,’ or ‘I didn’t know the PEM was here.’ They’ll leave with a much fuller experience than they expected to get ... saying ‘I’ve got to come back.’”
The restaurants alone, she said, which have probably doubled in number over the past decade, draw huge numbers to the city and pack the downtown on weekend nights. Those restaurants had a combined revenue of more than $100 million last year, according to the Salem Chamber of Commerce.
Festivals also have taken off. The Destination Salem office released a list of 2014 festivals and events recently that is staggering in scope: Salem Film Fest, Massachusetts Poetry Festival, Salem Arts Festival, Great Salem Fire Centennial, North Shore Pride Parade, Fourth of July celebration, Salem Jazz & Soul Festival, and on and on.
Destination Salem made a big advertising push last year that produced big numbers. Its website, another good barometer of tourism in Salem, went from 376,000 visitors in 2012 to 525,000 last year.
So does anybody know, with all these attractions and competing statistics, how many people visit Salem in a year?
“I still use the estimate of a million visitors a year,” said Fox.
Tom Dalton can be reached at email@example.com.