November 4, 2005
Bland Fall Foliage Blunts Tourism
By Jason Szep
WILMINGTON, Vermont (Reuters) - In her quiet Vermont town, Cynthia Beaudette cannot recall a stranger autumn.
The foliage that usually explodes in brilliant reds, yellows and orange across New England, drawing in thousands of tourists and their spending, was the dullest ever, she says.
Green leaves clung to trees weeks longer than normal. When they finally turned, gale-force winds and a week of torrential rain knocked many off their limbs. Vacationers that usually storm the state stayed away. Dark clouds blocked the sun.
The usual "killing" frost that snaps green pigment, or chlorophyll, from the leaves to turn forests into a mosaic of color arrived as much a month late in some areas.
That turned the foliage season -- a New England tradition that nurtures tourism and turns sleepy 18th-century homes into thriving inns -- into a faint shadow of its usual self.
"People never really came," said Beaudette, owner of the "Incurable Romantic," a gift shop she opened 18 years ago that suffered a 30-percent drop in sales this season. "Foliage began late and then it rained for days. It never really happened."
From the U.S. Northeast to southeastern Canada, the poor foliage sapped strength from a tourism market already hurt by high gasoline prices, rising interest rates, fragile consumer confidence and damage from the U.S. Gulf Coast hurricanes.
"We expect the fall travel season across the United States to be down just slightly under one percent," said Travel Industry Association of America spokeswoman Cathy Keefe, adding that such a meager fall was statistically "stable."
"But the bad news is we are not seeing any growth. And I think the way things are looking right now this soft period is probably going to continue for a little bit, like into the first quarter of next year," she said.
COUNTING THE COST
The sight of so many green trees that would typically glow in flaming reds and oranges so late into autumn led to talk at cafes and dinner tables of global warming and took a harsh toll on businesses as travelers cut short their visits.
In Vermont alone, tourists usually spend about $338 million in autumn, state statistics show. Most, or about 40 percent, drive for five hours or longer from New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, with 38 percent from other New England states.
Not far from Beaudette's shop of beaded glass necklaces and other gifts in Wilmington -- a rural Vermont town of 2,225 people in a valley of the Green Mountains -- other businesses reported drops of 15 percent to 35 percent in sales.
"We were down 28 percent to 30 percent. The window of opportunity was very small and the weather didn't cooperate," said Brad York, a 32-year-old California native who bought Wilmington's Misty Mountain Lodge in April with his partner.
At the Nutmeg Country Inn, an 18th-century farm house, the biggest menace was a week-long storm that brought record rainfall and generated day after day of gloomy headlines that frightened away visitors, said innkeeper Gerry Goodman.
"I was down 15 to 20 percent in room sales compared to the last two years. I don't think it had as much to do with that the colors weren't so pretty as it was just the bad publicity," he said. "High gas prices had a big impact too, I think."
Beaudette said she feared global warming may be to blame, but climatologists such as Lesley-Ann Dupigny-Giroux said the poor foliage had many explanations and reflected a drought-like summer that damaged the trees followed by fierce rain.
Canada had a similar experience but with the added element of a significant rise in smog further stressing its trees, said Environment Canada senior climatologist David Phillips. "But one year does not a trend make," he cautioned.