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Tourism Program in Debt

The state's defunct international tourism program has 2.4 million dollars in unpaid bills and a lot of angry vendors.

The debt incurred by "Tourism Massachusetts" is the latest revelation about a program championed by top administration officials, but cut by both the Romney and Patrick administrations.

Now the Patrick administration is trying to decide which bills get paid. W-B-U-R's Martha Bebinger has more.

TEXT OF STORY

MARTHA BEBINGER: Tourism Massachusetts was established three years ago to boost the state's international tourism market. Records show that the Romney administration raised questions early on about program spending and accounting.

By last July, Tourism Massachusetts was virtually out of money and could not persuade the administration to release 5 million dollars the legislature had designated for the program.

But Tourism Massachusetts president, William MacDougall kept spending, largely on credit. MacDougall did not return calls requesting comment for this story.

Rafael Torres, owns Don Quixote Tours in Boston, and is waiting for his $10,000 check.

RAFAEL TORRES: It's tough, because winter time, winter time is a bad season for industry so we count with those funds to continue.

BEBINGER: In all, Tourism Massachusetts owes 68 vendors 2.4 million dollars, an amount the state expects to rise when all the receipts are in.

At Rapport International, a translation service, Wendy Pease has taken a line of equity to pay linguists. Tourism Massachusetts owes Pease $50,000 for translating a website into eight languages.

WENDY PEASE: It's been a hardship for us because this has been the biggest project for the year. But I guess it's a very hot issue on the hill right now as to how tourism in Massachusetts is going to be handled. I have no understanding of the politics of this at all.

BEBINGER: International marketing and public relations firms are owed almost a million dollars. Locally, the Head of the Charles is waiting for $75,000.

The Boston Park Plaza Hotel has submitted bills for $28,000 and threatened to begin collection proceedings. The Massachusetts Lodging Association, which initially competed with Tourism Massachusetts to run the international marketing program, is due $135,000.

Director Art Canter says $10,000 was a loan to Tourism Massachusetts. The rest paid to distribute a promotional brochure in Canada and develop a guidebook. Canter has this to say about whether the money was well spent.

ART CANTER: The proof is in the pudding. I think they're great publications. The B and B guide has not been published yet. We've been spending months just trying to get all the information.

BEBINGER: The Patrick administration's Office of Housing and Economic Development is reviewing the unpaid accounts for Tourism Massachusetts, says spokeswoman Kofi Jones.

KOFI JONES: Well, if the paperwork substantiates that these invoices were incurred as a result of marketing for international tourism for the commonwealth, they will be paid.

BEBINGER: Jones can't say how soon the state will decide which receipts are paid. The state Inspector General's office is also combing through the records of Tourism Massachusetts.

Senate president Therese Murray called for the investigation after earlier reports raised questions about whether the program spent taxpayer dollars wisely. Murray says Tourism Massachusetts was effective.

THERESE MURRAY: They brought 2 major airlines into Massport that we didn't have before. That is a big plus for Massachusetts and a big plus for the tourism industry.

They reconnected with our vendors in Germany and England and opened an office in Australia to let people know we were open for business.

BEBINGER: But the Patrick administration, with approval from the legislature, has moved international tourism back into the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism where it was before 2005. MOTT director Betsy Wall says a unified tourism program makes more sense.

BETSY WALL: I just really do think it's a great opportunity, that it should be part of the whole. International visitor spending has declined recently, while domestic visitor spending has increased, so we feel that this office is doing something right and that we can expand those efforts to the international arena and see similar results.

BEBINGER: Wall isn't sure if MOTT will finish projects started by Tourism Massachusetts: the bed and breakfast guide, the website and several touring exhibits.

It will depend, in part, on how much money there is for tourism in next year's budget. Wall says she's certain she can restore the confidence of international vendors or tourists who have questions about working with Massachusetts.

This program aired on March 31, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

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