On a hot, humid Friday in June on gridlock-stricken Interstate 95 north, the visitors' center in Darien is buzzing with travelers. Each business at the rest stop gains some flow of customers from the traffic, except the visitors' desk, which stands unattended, with brochures as its only sign of life.

The empty desk is a microcosm of a state with a crippled history of tourism, now trying to erect a new brand.

John Howe lives in Heath, Texas, but he and his family were driving from New York to Rhode Island, where he grew up, when they decided to stop at the visitors' center. Howe, 40, does not know of any tourist destinations in Connecticut.

"I've never heard of any vacation spots (in Connecticut)," Howe said. "There's really no reason why I wouldn't. If I heard of something nice, I would probably think about it."

With the summer tourism season looming, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced this week a program to spark tourism in Connecticut, offering $2.6 million in a public-private fund. According to Randy Fiveash, the director of tourism of the Commission on Culture and Tourism, 44 private donors contributed $1 million to the fund, while the state is providing the other $1.6 million.

Fiveash noted that Connecticut lags behind other New England states in tourism. "We've been outpaced by the states around us," Fiveash said. "We just want to get back in the game and stay in the game."

Starting May 22, the CCT began its "quick start" campaign. The $2.6 million budget intends to aid the CCT in its marketing ventures until Malloy's $15 million tourism marketing budget for the new fiscal year kicks in July 1.

"We knew that if we had to wait on those dollars, we couldn't get anything in the marketplace -- any advertising or marketing and such -- until August or so. And the summer would be gone by then," Fiveash said. "Gov. Malloy really supported us in an effort to get something out there -- get money together -- to be able to do a spring-summer, late spring and all summer marketing campaign."

The quickstart program's budget is too small for television advertising in the New York and Boston markets, where the CCT plans to advertise most, Fiveash said. Instead, the funds have been used for radio, newspaper and online ads. Fiveash said The New York Times travel section has proven to be a fruitful marketing forum.

Fiveash noted that Connecticut's hotel occupancy rates -- lower than other states, such as Massachusetts -- are still below 2008 levels. The occupancy rate serves as an indicator of the state's level of tourism.

Former Gov. M. Jodi Rell reduced the CCT's budget for statewide advertising to $1 in 2010, stripping the commission's ability to advertise out of state. Also, Connecticut did not pay the $100,000 membership fee for Discover New England, a marketing alliance among the six states to promote the region internationally.

Although the state marketing budget was reduced substantially, the state still issues culture and tourism grants to tourist destinations for specific purposes, such as billboard advertising. The grant sizes have steadily declined in the last few years, though.

Chris Loynd, director of marketing at the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk, said that in 2007 -- his first year -- the aquarium received four grant-funded billboards. This year, the state allocated no grant money to the aquarium for billboards. According to Loynd, in 2009, the state offered the aquarium $621,000 in direct, line-item support, which does not include the grants it's allotted. This year, the aquarium will receive $514,000 in direct support -- aid that is only given to major tourism attractions in the state.

"In the past, those TV ads that we see here in Connecticut for `Come visit Massachusetts', `Come to Lake George', `Come to the Poconos' -- we should be doing that to Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New York, at a minimum," said Loynd, who noted that 36 percent of the aquarium's visitors came from out of state last year. "That's the piece that we're really missing."

The Maritime Aquarium estimated that every dollar invested in the aquarium returns $61.88 in "economic impact," resulting in $42 million for the state.

"The Maritime Aquarium does not have the resources to stretch that far beyond our boundaries," Loynd said. "I don't have enough money to go run ads in Philadelphia, for example. We're too small for that. The state of Connecticut is not, but we are too small for that."

Malloy proposed $15 million for the CCT this fiscal year, which starts July 1. The increased marketing budget will be used to structure a branding campaign -- the CCT's first priority, Fiveash said -- to make the state more attractive to visitors. The details of the branding scheme are not established yet because the money has yet to be allocated.

According to the state, travelers to Connecticut annually spend an estimated $11.5 billion, resulting in $1.15 billion in state and local tax revenue. The hotel occupancy taxes also account for $70 million in revenue. In Massachusetts, tourists spend $15.6 billion, but only generate $963 million in state and local taxes. The state's tourism, especially in Cape Cod, employs 128,800 people, according to Massachusetts officials.

The perception of Connecticut as a non-tourist destination appears instilled in many travelers' minds.

Laura Peyton, of Brooklyn, N.Y., said she was "just passing through" Connecticut on her way to see her parents in the Boston area. Peyton does not vacation in Connecticut.

"I guess I just don't know where to go," said Peyton, 30. "It never occurred to me."

Even Connecticut's residents notice the lengths the state must go to improve. Donna Hodge, of Chester, vacations on the shoreline around Old Saybrook.

"The tourist drop-off sites where you get information on tourism are very poorly manned and very poor hours of operation and so forth," said Hodge, 61. "Gosh, I don't know what Connecticut really has, other than the shoreline. We have some museums, we have some theaters, but I don't think of Connecticut as a place to go to vacation."