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The Radisson Hotel Baltimore-Inner Harbor. Baltimore attacted 25.9 million visitors in 2016, a 2.8 percent increase over the previous year.
The Radisson Hotel Baltimore-Inner Harbor. Baltimore attacted 25.9 million visitors in 2016, a 2.8 percent increase over the previous year. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Tourism officials are working to boost Baltimore's image both internationally and in the city's own backyard as convention bookings have rebounded and the number of annual visitors has grown.

Baltimore attracted 25.9 million visitors in 2016, a 2.8 percent year-over-year increase, Visit Baltimore officials said Tuesday. The city saw increases in day-trippers as well as overnight tourists, who combined generated $5.6 billion in direct spending. Visitor spending, up nearly 4 percent, generated $705 million in city and state taxes.

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The city's tourism and convention bureau said bookings finalized during fiscal year 2017 will bring in 385 events in future years, including 30 citywide conventions, activity that is expected to generate $332 million in economic impact through 2032.

Coming conventions include United Soccer Coaches in 2028 and 2032, events expected to bring in 9,500 hotel room nights and more than $5 million in economic impact per meeting.

"The convention business is on the rebound after a little dip in 2015. We're coming back," Al Hutchinson, Visit Baltimore president and CEO, said in an interview Tuesday. "What our team has been doing the past few years, getting the word out, is really strong and successful. Our visitation numbers overall, when you talk about 25.9 million visitor coming in, that's a big number.. It's very important to us."

The death of Freddie Gray in 2015 of injuries suffered while in police custody and subsequent rioting caused a decline in tourism in Baltimore in 2015.

City Council members want Baltimore to invite groups looking to move their conferences out of North Carolina over that state's controversial "bathroom bill."

Visit Baltimore released its fiscal year 2017 annual report during its annual meeting Tuesday at the Hilton Baltimore and announced plans such as expanding its international focus and getting community members to act as ambassadors for visiting friends and family. The organization unveiled a new destination video that highlights city neighborhoods, architecture, food and events, with the tagline "Visit Like A Local."

"We've always done a great job with telling the full Baltimore story; we're just paying more attention to it," Hutchinson said. "We want to get more of our neighborhoods and communities involved."

Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh told meeting attendees the city is benefiting from a development renaissance and boom in drawing millennial residents.

"That story needs to be told, and I'm excited to see Visit Baltimore committed to telling it," Pugh said.

During the 2016 calendar year, Baltimore hotels saw upticks in occupancy, average daily rates and revenue per available room, Visit Baltimore said.

Spending on food and beverages jumped 5 percent, a payoff, officials said, of promotions highlighting the city's culinary offerings. The agency ran two-page advertorial spreads on the culinary scene in The New York Times' "T" Magazine and in the Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia June issues of Travel +Leisure, Food & Wine and Real Simple.

But the city remains constrained by a lack of space at the Baltimore Convention Center, Hutchinson said..

"If we want to grow, it's important to look at expansion," he said.

Hutchinson said Visit Baltimore has been involved in renewed discussions, along with other interested parties, about expanding the facility, which tourism officials have long argued is necessary to compete with bigger centers in other cities.

The Maryland Stadium Authority is looking into an expansion as well as construction of a new downtown arena and hotel as part of a study that's expected to be completed by the end of the year.

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Though the domestic market accounts for 93 percent of Baltimore's tourism business, officials said they plan to focus more strategically on international markets during the coming year.

By capitalizing on direct flights from Air Canada and British Airways at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, the organization hopes to attract more Canadian and British visitors. Studies show international visitors stay longer and spend more money than domestic visitors.

"It makes sense to partner with the airport," Hutchinson said. "I really believe the international market is low- hanging fruit for us, and it's something we really want to grow."

The Board of Public Works unanimously approved the BWI Marshall Airport's plan to expand and improve Concourse E, the airport's international terminal facility.

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