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Fall bus tour business drops in New Hampshire

New Hampshire tourism officials expect lots of visiting leaf-peepers and lots of people spending money during the upcoming Columbus Day weekend. But at least one part of the industry has taken a bit of hit this fall: bus tours.
/ Source: The Associated Press

New Hampshire tourism officials expect lots of visiting leaf-peepers and lots of people spending money during the upcoming Columbus Day weekend. But at least one part of the industry has taken a bit of hit this fall: bus tours.

Some tour operators believe the drop is due to a perception that roads are still damaged from Tropical Storm Irene. The roads have been repaired.

Jayne O'Connor, president of White Mountains Attractions, a marketing association for the White Mountains region, said a 15 percent drop in tour bus business started as early as July, during the Congressional standoff over increasing the nation's borrowing limit and the possibility the government would run out of money.

Many people who board the usual 3,000 buses on fall foliage tours through the White Mountains are retired and on fixed incomes. They make their plans in advance, O'Connor said.

"When they could not decide in Washington what to do, those people were not confident that their (Social Security) checks were going to be coming in the mail and were not confident enough to make their travel plans," she said. "We really noticed that, and I heard from least one of the tour operators in the state who said, 'My phone has just stopped ringing.'"

O'Connor said the chalkboard at the White Mountains Visitor Center, where tourists can write where they're from, recently showed that about 80 percent of the visitors were from other countries, and 20 percent domestic; in the past, it's been the other way around.

Mel Tye of Tye's Top Tour & Travel in Merrimack said 11 motorcoach trips to view foliage in New Hampshire and Vermont have been canceled during the last two weeks, but he attributes that to concerns over Tropical Storm Irene.

"A lot of the people in the Midwest still believe that all the bridges in Vermont and New Hampshire are out and are impassable, no matter what we tell them," he said.

Still, New Hampshire estimates 610,000 visitors will come from out of state during the three-day holiday weekend, slightly higher than last year. They are expected to spend $85 million. Many inns and resorts are reporting a strong showing.

In Vermont, which also usually sees a lot of motorcoach traffic during the fall, tourism officials are focused on working to get the word out that major routes are open and accessible and that the weather forecast for Columbus Day weekend is sunny and warm. The storm also didn't affect the foliage. The state generally sees about $331 million spent during foliage season; that makes up about 23 percent of annual tourism spending, said Steve Cook, the state's deputy commissioner of travel.

"Some parts of the state are expecting to have a very strong upcoming weekend; other parts of the state are concerned," Cook said. "Southern Vermont is the part of the state that we're particularly watching closely. There are a number of properties that were not in impacted areas from the tropical storm that have not seen the typical occupancies that they see this time of year — obviously a concern to us."

Christian Helmstetter of The Inn at Mount Snow in Vermont said when the storm hit, there was a perception that the inn was inaccessible; he emailed guests who were booked for the coming days to tell them that the flooding was nine miles away and the inn was fine. He said the inn is only off by one room this year compared to last year, but added, "Time to email again to give the glorious weather report for the weekend."

At the Mountain Top Inn & Resort in Chittenden, Vt., bookings are off about 25 percent for the weekend. "It's difficult to say exactly what the cause is, although we attribute it mainly to the storm and the perception that foliage may be better viewed elsewhere in the Northeast," said Diane Dickerman, director of marketing. "Fortunately, we have a wedding on Saturday, and that gave us a good base of business for the weekend."

Tourism officials and innkeepers note there's often a last-minute flurry in bookings, as many people wait to make sure the weather will be good.

The Bay Leaf Cottages & Bistro at Lincolnville Beach, Maine, was booked 40 percent for the weekend as of Thursday. "I expect we will be up to 80 percent this weekend, but that people will just show up or call tonight/tomorrow," said co-owner Jane Liedtke.