This could be the year that Maryland tourism comes of age.

The industry was the subject last week of a high-profile legislative summit. It will continue to occupy the limelight as lawmakers consider making the state's tourism department a Cabinet-level position.

In addition, tourism leaders are asking for a near doubling of the budget over the next five years - an additional $12.5 million - to stay competitive.

"All of this adds up to one thing: The door is open to look at tourism," said George Williams, the state's director of tourism, who will hand over his position to Hannah L. Byron in March. "This is a major milestone in the process. It may never come around again. It's paramount to the industry that it be viewed during this open-door process."

In the next few months, Maryland's tourism industry will come under new leadership, entertain a premier tour bus convention that is expected to create new business for years, and polish up its tourism products.

"I think it's going to be a great year," said Williams, the state's director of tourism for the past 10 years. "There is probably some reason to believe it could be better than 2000. I think people may have the feeling that the economy is not going to stay as good as it is forever, so they better take that trip."

Williams plans to step down to join his wife, who has taken a job in New Orleans.

A key event is the American Bus Association Marketplace convention Jan. 27 to Feb. 2. The gathering of 400 tour bus operators is expected to pump $2.5 million in direct spending into the local economy. More important, it is expected to increase group tour business here by 10 percent, Byron said, generating an estimated $32.5 million in business.

"The ABA is really a premier event for us," said Byron, who is currently deputy assistant secretary of the Maryland Division of Tourism, Film and the Arts. "It's going to be a great opportunity to showcase Maryland and Baltimore."

Among the tourist attractions the state will promote this year is Civil War Trails, which recently received a $700,000 federal award that will help create signs, pull-off areas and maybe a CD for visitors to hear on their drive along the 70-mile route. The trail, patterned after highly successful Civil War tours in Virginia, would take travelers on the route that General Robert E. Lee followed when he invaded Maryland in 1862, a strategic move that ended at Antietam.

State tourism officials also continue to hone multicultural, sports and outdoor tourism initiatives.

The tourism summit, a project of longtime tourism advocate House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., was held in Annapolis Monday. It was part of the focus on how much the state should spend on tourism and whether the state's tourism office should report directly to the governor.

This year, the tourism industry will seek to increase the tourism budget to $25.9 million over five years, a significant increase but one that wouldn't keep pace with nearby rivals. Virginia's budget for 2000-2001 is $21 million, and Pennsylvania's is $54.2 million, according to officials in those states.

From Ocean City to Western Maryland, 2000 was a good year for tourism. Although the cool, sometimes rainy, summer proved a mixed blessing for business in Ocean City, where the tourism season represents an economic impact of $1 billion to $1.5 billion, the town surpassed its usual 4 million visitors. Room tax revenue in July exceeded that of the previous year by 8.5 percent, and in August by 14.1 percent, according to a spokeswoman for the town.

Across the state, Allegany and Garrett counties reported increases in hotel and motel taxes over the previous year. Accommodations taxes in Garrett County rose 15.5 percent in fiscal 2000, and hotel/motel taxes rose 2 percent in Allegany County in fiscal 2000, according to county officials.

Carroll R. Armstrong, president and chief executive officer of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, said Baltimore racked up significant milestones last year, including OpSail 2000, the NAACP national convention, the National Square Dance Convention and the Army-Navy Game.

"We're really getting our act together and developing this singleness of purpose," he said. "Having that singleness of purpose is the magic that underscores the quality of experience that we provide our visitors. Those cities that understand that are the most successful."

But he says there is reason to be cautious about 2001. Shaky consumer confidence could dampen tourism, he said.

"2001 for us is going to be a challenging time," Armstrong said. "I see 2001 as a year where we really need to be focused on the basics and trying to do those things that give us the biggest return for the money."

Overall, more than 18 million visitors to Maryland spent about $7.1 billion in 1999, according to the Maryland Office of Tourism Development.

Even though the overall number of visitors to Maryland dropped by 5.8 percent between 1998 and 1999, visitors to Maryland spent more money and stayed longer than the previous year, according to statistics supplied by the Travel Industry Association of America. (Statistics for 2000 were not available.)

"Getting fewer people staying longer, we put less strain on the resources while still growing the economy," Williams said. "That's what our intent was, to raise the income level of the target audience."

Average household spending per trip in Maryland in 1999 was $312 compared with $277 in 1998, an increase of 12.6 percent, according to travel association statistics. Visitors stayed an average of 2.7 days in 1999 compared with 2.3 days in 1998. Nevertheless, visitors to Maryland spent $116 a day per household - $21 less than the national average, according to the travel association. That difference in spending from the national average translates to more than $538 million.

Length of stay also lags behind the national average. Nationwide, the average trip lasts 3.5 days.

Now that Maryland tourism officials have boosted visitor spending and the length of time people spend in Maryland, it may be time to get the visitor numbers back up, Williams said.

"We're not saturated," Williams said. "Let's raise those levels of visitors on up. We have proven before that we were able to sustain more visitor volume."