Friday, September 12, 2014

Let Them in Harrisburg Eat Funnel Cake

A good method for local officials to better understand tourist is to try to view their locality as tourists find the area.

Harrisburg hosted a conference of a group to which I belonged. I had traveled to various cities for this organization. I already had experienced many of the problems tourists face with unfamiliar surroundings. I wondered how our guests had fared visiting Harrisburg. So I asked them.

Keeping in mind what our visitors stated, I then attempted to view Harrisburg as a tourist might. Here are some observations:

The main physical attractions (not counting periodic attractions such as festivals and sports games)  in Harrisburg are the Civil War Museum (while technically outside the city it is owned by the city government), the State Capitol, the Whitaker Center, the Fire Museum, and the John Harris Museum. A striking feature is many residents do not know how to tell a tourist how to get to some of these places. Hotel, restaurant, and services staff often do not know how to tell tourists how to get to these places. A few well placed brochures and increasing residents’ awareness of these attractions would help. Further, finding ways to attract local residents to these attractions (i.e. discounts or special features according to attendees’ zip codes) would help.

If people do not wish to drive to any of these locations and wish to use mass transit, even fewer local residents could tell them how to do so. For the John Harris Museum, the correct answer is you can’t get there by bus. Fortunately, the John Harris Museum, the State Capitol, and the Whitaker Center are walkable from the downtown hotels.

As for the other two attractions, there is nothing on the bus schedules which mention even which bus lines go near these museums. There is nothing on the maps of the buses going nearest these attractions that show where these museums are and which stops from which to exit, nor in which directions the shorts walks are to reach these museums.

The bus system is designed for commuters. The schedules and printed bus schedules are meant for commuter use. There is nothing wrong with this, as the bus officials are meeting their customer needs. Yet, if we wish to get tourists to feel comfortable using our bus system, some easily achievable changes could assist.

The printed bus schedules could include more landmarks, including what commercial, entertainment, and museums are located along and near the bus routes. This will help tourists. Further, newly arrived residents, and perhaps some long time residents would haven’t ventured out much lately, could also benefit from more information as to what is reachable along which bus lines.

The front page of the bus schedules, which list bus destinations, should include listing the museums. At present, the schedules do not mention them.

It is also advisable the bus schedules use a bolder and larger font. One of the complaints I received from people with vision difficulties who wanted to explore the area by bus is the schedules were difficult to read. It would help if the schedules were easier to read.

It would be helpful to tourists, new residents, and casual bus riders who may not be familiar with the bus system if bus stops would include the bus number(s) at the bus stops. This would especially be useful in the downtown areas where several buses stop at different nearby locations. It helps ridership if people are standing at the correct stop.

It would also be helpful if the bus numbers could be placed on the back of the buses. I have often seen people chasing buses only to realize they are chasing the wrong buses. This could be prevented if the bus numbers were displayed in back and in front of buses.

It is good to see plans to place the downtown bus originations closer to the train station. It is also good to see that Amtrak is planning a stop close to the airport. It helps tourists if transportation modes transfers are easier to reach. At present, transferring from one mass transit mode to another may be confusing as the transfer areas are uncommonly further distances from each other.

An issue that needs consideration is the current use of the bus transfer area as outdoor homeless shelters. The city should offer those who choose to be outdoors and homeless better accommodations. In speaking with visitors, especially those staying at the downtown Crowne Plaza, the presence of the homeless and pan handlers at the Market Square bus area is a deterrent to visitors going past that area. They thus are deterred from walking to the downtown restaurants and other attractions.

The Capitol building is an integral part of Harrisburg tourism. The Pennsylvania Capitol is the largest Capitol building in the nation. According to Smithsonian magazine, it is the “most ornate” of the Capitol buildings. It should be a key tourist destination.

A problem many tourists note is the State Capitol has a small gift shop. Having been to several State Capitols, I can confirm this. I find it hard to imagine that the largest Capitol in the country is unable to find enough room to accommodate the desires of tourists to spend money.

Even more ironic is some of the better quality gifts that the Pennsylvania Capitol has to offer are sold from an office on the Capitol’s top floor. There are few directional signs within the building guiding tourists to this shop. These items should be sold in a shop experiencing higher tourist traffic.

We have an excellent Fire Museum. I have been to several fire museums in other cities, and ours stands out amongst the best. What it lacks is attendees. The Fire Museum should be part of an organized attempt to get people to not only come to Harrisburg, yet to have seeing this museum as among their reasons in which to increase their stay.

I was surprised at the recent suggestions by some that the Civil War Museum be closed. On the contrary, Harrisburg stands to benefit from the tourism this museum attracts. It should be used to entice more visitors. It was always a logical idea to attempt to attract the many tourists who visit two of the busiest Pennsylvania attractions, namely Gettysburg and Hersheypark. Harrisburg is between these two.

Having the best Civil War Museum should especially entice the Gettysburg tourists wishing to learn more about the Civil War. The Civil War Museum is critical for attracting these tourist dollars. We should be encouraging local hotels to offer free or low cost shuttles to Civil War Museum, which would also help attract tourists to book at these hotels..

As much as this following statement may attract some angry resentments, the dead projects of creating more museums would have been steps in the right direction. There are good arguments over which types of museums would have been best. Certainly the manner in which they were handled warranted criticism. The issue of creating more museums should be revisited.

A Wild West Museum could have attracted visitors to the area who are not able to travel to the Western U.S. to see their wild west museums. (Indeed, there really aren’t that many such museums out west, anyway.) An assortment of museums, such as an African American Museum and a sports museum would draw a mixture of tourists. There should have been public debate over what that mix of museums should be. Those ideas were decent ones. Such ideas should be rekindled, and done so in open public discussion with the museums created with public oversight.

An issue that several tourists complain about is the airport taxi service. One company has a monopoly over picking up passengers. It was reported in the Patriot that this would done to punish a competitor who overcharged. Yet experiences show that rides from the airport into Harrisburg are often about twice what is charged for rides from Harrisburg to the airport from all taxi services. This makes one wonder if overcharging is now institutionalized.

Further, it is frustrating for airport arrivers to discover there are no taxis outside. One driver told me the company with the airport monopoly also has a county contract and that while he was coming to pick up a passenger, the county contract called and the county receives priority over airport passengers.

A representative from a competing cab company stated his driver could pick up a passenger at the airport but the driver would have to pay a surcharge which meant the driver would lose money taking a passenger from the airport into Harrisburg. Whatever the facts are, the airport’s taxi service needs to improve. The reputation of Harrisburg as a tourist destination depends upon it.

The city needs innovative ideas in attracting tourists. A city in Vietnam decorated its bridge to look like a dragon which brings people to see the bridge. The Colorado State Capitol has a winter lights display that pulls in lots of cars driving by. We could decorate our pedestrian bridge. Our Capitol or City Hall could have a night lights show. There could be lots of other ideas. There could be a competition on what could be done---indeed, several good projects could be done--- and some of the funds designated for the arts could be used to invest in something innovative where the arts could attract tourists.

Harrisburg is in a good location between major tourist attractions, connected to several highways, is a rail terminating station, and has an international airport. With a few steps in the right direction, it can find financial success attracting tourists.


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