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With foliage dull, tourism withers


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With foliage dull, tourism withers


By Michael Levenson, Globe Correspondent | October 15, 2005




This is supposed to be peak season for minivans loaded with luggage and children, eyes ogling the ochres, puces, and purples flaming across the mountainsides of Sunapee and Kearsarge, in short, the time for northern New England to turn the crisp fall weather into cold, hard cash from leaf-peeping tourists.


Instead, museums, country inns, and foliage guides are anxiously biding their time, their main draw, the leaves, still disappointingly green in many spots and in others absent altogether, washed from the trees by more than a week of relentless rain and whipping wind.


The gray skies and green mountains are taking their toll economically, officials say, by robbing the region of weekend visitors who typically drive up from Massachusetts and other points south and spend a night or two before returning home. Pumpkin festivals, sprawling mountain resorts, and crafts fairs are all reporting fewer visitors.


''Walking through gardens in the driving rain is not many people's idea of spending an ideal weekend," said Alison Breach, education director at the Fells, a historic estate and garden in Newbury, N.H, where the roughly 100 visitors last weekend were just a third of the typical Columbus Day.


Though it boasts a trickling brook, Japanese water lily pool, and hillside rock garden, the Fells slashed prices on items in its gift shop in an attempt to lure visitors. Breach blames the leaves for the drop in tourism.



''I have been disappointed by the foliage, to be quite honest," Breach said. ''With the rain this weekend, it just kind of drove the leaves that are turning right off the trees. The Fells is always beautiful, but I'd like to see the flaming reds and the sunsets in the forests, as it were. I've missed that."


With more flood watches and warnings for this weekend, the outlook isn't any brighter.


New Hampshire businesses had hoped to make $1.04 billion this fall, an increase of 3 percent, from some 7.7 million tourists, officials said yesterday. Those figures may already be out of reach: During Columbus Day weekend, when 550,000 tourists normally flock to the state and spend $92 million, toll revenues at Interstate 95 and Interstate 93 were down 8 percent, officials said.


Some small towns, where many businesses rely on tourism, have been particularly hard hit. In Warner, N.H., a town of about 2,900 just west of Concord, the Warner Fall Foliage Festival usually raises $25,000 for the town library, the volunteer Fire Department, and the local Parent Teacher Association by drawing visitors to a road race, pie-eating contest, and crafts and book sale, said the festival's chairman, Ray Martin.


But last weekend, pelting rains and severely flooded roads drove away 40 of the 100 crafts vendors who had planned to attend and forced cancellation of the oxen-pulling contest, teen dance, and parade down Main Street, Martin said. Only 5,000 people attended the festival, 20,000 fewer than most years, and the event reported a loss of $2,000. The theme was supposed to be ''Our Favorite Pastimes," he said.


''Watching the water rise became the favorite pastime," Martin said, grimly. ''The worst part about it is there won't be any funds to give out this year."



At Mount Sunapee in Newbury, N.H., leaf watchers hoping to take one of the ski lifts billed as an ''Aerial Sky Ride" to the golden summit were disappointed. Not only is the mountain mostly green, not gold, but the lift was closed Columbus Day weekend and will be closed again this weekend because of the wet, stormy weather, said Stacey O'Mara, guest services supervisor for the resort.


Vermont also suffered a decline in visitors over Columbus Day weekend, typically its busiest weekend of the year, said Bruce Hyde, commissioner of the state Department of Tourism and Marketing. ''With the torrential rains and flooding that occurred, it certainly kept a lot of the day traffic at home."


While folk wisdom holds that cold nights and bright, brilliant days produce spectacular leaf colors, the truth is more complex, specialists say. Timothy Perkins, a botanist and director of the Proctor Maple Research Center at the University of Vermont, said leaves change when the days shorten and the temperature drops. Rain or shine, the change depletes them of chlorophyll, revealing russet and yellow pigments.


September was unseasonably warm. In Concord, for instance, the average temperature for the month was 63 degrees, nearly 4 degrees warmer than normal, according to the National Weather Service. This month the downpours arrived. ''If there's too much, the way that rain is going to affect foliage is by knocking the leaves off, the same as wind would," Perkins said.

Pop-up Drab season


In New Hampshire, state officials are still hoping to break their estimates for revenue and visitors, when the weather improves and the leaves finally turn from green to gold later this month or in early November, said Victoria Cimino, spokeswoman for New Hampshire Division of Travel and Tourism Development.


Until then, New Hampshire inns and tourist sites are relying in large part on what are known as weather-proof visitors, those who book flights and reservations months in advance because they are coming from the Midwest, the South, or parts farther afield, Cimino said. Unlike day-trippers from Massachusetts, they show up, whether the weather is nice or not, she said.


''People are up here visiting, seeing what they can see," said Lorie McClory, information director at Lake Sunapee Regional Chamber of Commerce in New London, N.H. ''If they were planning to come, people still came. It's better to be somewhere else in the pouring rain than sitting at home, being miserable."



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