Northern New England's fall foliage is expected to be spectacular this year, unlike tourism revenues, which likely will remain muted as the economy slowly recovers.
Abundant rain during the summer should boost the vibrancy of the red, orange and gold foliage that attracts millions of visitors to New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont each fall. That has tourism officials optimistic, though no one's expecting to break any records. They're offering a variety of packages and deals in hopes of matching or beating last year's revenues, which were down significantly from previous years as recession gripped the nation.
In Vermont, more than 60 lodging properties, tourist attractions and restaurants are offering tourists with midweek bookings "Midweek Peek" deals ranging from "stay two nights, get the third night free" to a free round of golf or half-pint of maple syrup.
Dozens of properties in Maine are offering similar getaway packages during foliage season. In New Hampshire, the state tourism Web site lists "Yankee Dollar-Stretching Deals," and individual properties have their own promotions. Whitney's Inn in Jackson is offering a third night at half-price or a free fourth night. The listed rate for late September until mid-October is $129 per night for a standard room for two people.
Innkeeper Susan Pettengill said the inn is in good shape for foliage season — all but six of the 26 rooms are booked for the busy Columbus Day weekend — but acknowledged the toll the economy has taken.
"We've had to lower our rates, and people are very comfortable asking for discounts," she said.
New Hampshire had 7.5 million visitors who spent about $1 billion between September and November last year, and officials expect to roughly match that this year. The most recent data from Vermont shows 3.7 million visitors spent $375 million in fall 2007.
Revenue figures weren't available for Maine — which had 9.2 million visitors last fall — but some property managers have been reporting that reservations are about equal to or slightly higher than last fall, said Greg Dugal, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association. Though he welcomes such news, he points out that lodging revenues were down more than 10 percent last September and 3 percent in October, when the the nation's financial meltdown kept many potential visitors away.
Revenues also were down in June and July, Dugal said, in large part because of the rain. In New Hampshire, more people visited the state this summer but they spent less, said Tai Freligh, spokesman for the state's travel and tourism division, and more of the same is expected for fall, he said. The state continues to advertise in key markets like Philadelphia, Boston and New York, but since summer has been focusing more on New Hampshire residents, he said.
"Folks are taking more trips and making them shorter, and spending less when they do travel. They are staying closer to home," he said.
That's Chris Cavallari's plan. Cavallari, 30, owns a video production company in Portland, Maine, but a retail job pays the bills. So instead of taking a week off to visit his brother in Arizona or vacation in Florida, he's taking more short trips, closer to home.
"A three-day weekend here, a four-day backpacking trip there, and I get more bang for my buck," he said.
He is considering backpacking in western Maine or New Hampshire's White Mountains, a road trip up Maine's Coastal Route 1, a bike tour in Maine or kayaking along the Maine coast. Whatever he decides, he hopes to keep his expenses under $100 for a four-day trip.
"I'm an outdoorsy guy, so it would be camping no matter what mode of transportation I take," he said. "Though I love staying in hotels, camping is more fun and less expensive."
In Vermont, the state tourism office has been getting more requests for vacation planning packets, up 7 percent in August compared to a year earlier. New Yorkers made more inquiries than any other state, and requests from Texas jumped 21 percent to take the No. 2 spot.
"The economy has affected our area, but not as much as other areas of the country," said Linda Patterson, 57, of Boerne, Texas, who will be traveling to Vermont with her husband later this month. "We just decided we needed a vacation, although we have been cutting back in other areas of our budget."
Patterson is a semi-retired school librarian; her husband is a water plant operator. After vacationing in New Hampshire four years ago, they picked a bed and breakfast near Brattleboro, Vt., for this trip.
Beth Kennett, owner of Liberty Hill Farm in Rochester, Vt., said all seven rooms at her dairy farm's inn are booked for the weekends through Oct. 18. She charges $90 per night per adult for a room, dinner and breakfast.
Though she agreed that many tourists seem to be sticking closer to home in recent years, Kennett said this summer brought a surprisingly high number of international guests.
Mal Pattiarachi, an information technology consultant in Canberra, Australia, is heading to Vermont and New Hampshire next month as part of a trip that also includes visiting friends in Oregon, Colorado and Illinois. With the Australian economy and its dollar quite strong, and air fares to the U.S. cheaper than ever, it's a perfect time to travel, he said.
"I've always wanted to see the leaves changing color in New England and I have never been to that part of the U.S.," he said. "I had heard it's quite a majestic sight."
Pattiarachi, 28, said he found it impossible to find affordable accommodations in popular spots like Stowe, Vt., so he chose locations farther out. That didn't bother him — he figures he'll see more of the scenic countryside — but he was a bit stressed out about trying to time his trip during "peak foliage." This year, leaf peak is expected across most of New Hampshire and Vermont around Oct. 10-12 and in central Maine Sept. 29-Oct. 5.
"Compared to Australia, which is extremely dry and has really only gum trees, even slightly off-peak in New England I think is going to be an amazing experience," he said.