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Tourism push paying off Emergence of city as cultural destination could prove significant boost for region

It took a lot of hard work to make this happen: Buffalo is taking shape as a tourist destination. That's a welcome turn of events for an often-dissed city, which now should make the most of its emerging new image.

All the stakeholders in the arts and cultural community who have been saying for years that this area is strong and sometimes unique in its cultural traditions and preserved architectural heritage now see wider agreement -- and tourism that seems to be expanding to a broader visitor base.

Now there is empirical evidence backing up the claim. A Montana-based consulting firm, ArtsMarket, conducted an analysis three years ago on visitation to area cultural attractions. It found then that most tourists were "brainiacs" and "bifocal intellectuals" solely interested in art and architecture. A follow-up study this July changed that picture.

It turns out that our new brand of tourists are genuinely leisure travelers from all ages and walks of life. And they know exactly where they want to be -- Buffalo.

They are just as enchanted as those earlier tourists by such cultural amenities as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Burchfield Penney Art Center, Darwin D. Martin House Complex, Roycroft Campus, Graycliff, the Richardson-Olmsted Complex, Louis Sullivan's Guaranty Building and those beautiful vistas dotted around the city created by Frederick Law Olmsted.

More to the point, these people are coming from all parts of the United States and from some of the key areas of travel interest, such as New York City, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. And it doesn't hurt to have positive reviews from the New York Times and other major national publications to entice visitors, or to have the National Trust for Historic Preservation pick Buffalo for its 2011 annual conference.

Perhaps most of us who enjoy all the area has to offer -- with its accessible legendary architecture by masters, wonderful works in the form of neighborhood homes, the Buffalo Zoo and Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens, a museum district and a Museum of Science still hosting the world-renowned "Body Worlds" exhibition, a wide range of quality music and theater venues and performances and other cultural activities -- should take a little more note, as well.

There's an even more astonishing finding, though, in what must be admitted is a limited study. It's that more and more people are viewing the world-wonder attraction of Niagara Falls as an add-on to a visit to Buffalo, and not the other way around. ArtsMarket found a typical July comment to be: "We might go to the falls if we have the time, but we're running out of time."

That's a pretty strong sign of an emerging destination, and evidence that word about a rich cultural and historic tradition is getting out.

Case in point: Just two years after opening, the recently built but Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Fontana Boathouse is bringing in visitors from around the world. The executive director has noted that hundreds of people from 20 states and from nations as distant as England and Australia have visited the boathouse just this year. And that's not long after the facility on the Black Rock Channel used a $250,000 state grant won by Sen. William T. Stachowski to outfit itself with a telephone, docents and cell phone audio tours -- some of the accoutrements visitors expect.

So here's the bottom line: The news on Buffalo as a tourist destination is spreading.

Let's hope it goes viral.

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