Leaf peepers have been pouring into the state for Maine’s annual pageant of multihued foliage, giving a needed boost to the tourism industry that got off to a slow start this summer.
The spectacular fall colors are key to the yearly pilgrimage of visitors to Maine during the fall tourism season. In 2008, 25 percent of the 32 million visitors to Maine came in the fall, according to Pat Eltman, director of the Maine Tourism Bureau. And leaf peepers represent a good percentage of those fall numbers.
The sunny weather last weekend is sure to have helped attract tourism dollars.
“The Columbus Day weekend is one of the biggest holidays for lodging each year,” said Greg Dugal, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association. “It’s as big as Labor Day or Memorial Day.”
Tourism numbers for September and October aren’t available yet, but business owners who rely on tourism are hoping that a strong fall season will help to ease the damage done by two months of rain during June and July. Despite the optimism, though, no one anticipates that a good fall will result in a normal tourism season overall.
“We’re still going to be playing catch-up,” said Dick Grotton, president and CEO of the Maine Restaurant Association. “But if we can keep the leaves on the trees and don’t lose too much to wind or rain, we should have good [fall] numbers.”
“A good September and October will help us a lot,” Eltman agreed. “It’s going to help us with our year-end numbers.”
There is some evidence that the seekers of a Technicolor tourism experience have already had an impact this fall. Vaughn Stinson, chief executive director at the Maine Tourism Association, reported that while traffic at the state’s visitor centers has been down overall by about 4 percent this year, there was an increase in traffic coming into the state last month. In September, he said, the Kittery visitor center posted an increase of 6,300 visitors over last year’s September figures.
“That’s a huge spike,” he said.
A lot of that traffic — which boosted numbers in September 8 percent over last year — is attributed to the motor coach industry. Tour buses and cruise ships bring a lot of people into the state during the fall, many of them looking for fall foliage. At the visitor center in Fryeburg, for example, manager Dana Roffler said the Co-lumbus Day weekend was a busy one.
“We had three or four tour buses that all brought people off the cruise ships in Portland,” she said. “They came up, explored, headed off across the Kanc [Kancamagus Highway in nearby New Hampshire] and back. They were absolutely thrilled.”
The northbound visitor center in Hampden also posted high numbers during the weekend and saw a large number of international visitors from such places as New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, France and Israel. The chief destination, according to visitor center staff, was the foliage at Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island.
The Maine Department of Conservation monitors the foliage changes across the state and posts the information on its Web site. The foliage report has become a popular aid for travelers who use it to plan their fall excursion, sometimes a year in advance.
The last year the department tracked Web site hits on the report; it received more than 3 million visits, according to Gale Ross, the department’s foliage spokeswoman. This year, more than 4,000 people have signed up to receive the weekly e-mail foliage updates.
Even before the foliage report went online in September, Ross said she was getting hundreds of phone calls and e-mails seeking information about foliage.
“That’s not typical; I was surprised,” she said. “That made me think we might have a good season, that people were starting to make their plans early.”
Individual state parks and historic sites have sponsored fall events, such as Fort Knox’s Fright at the Fort, but this is the first year the department has held events tied directly to the foliage season. The department scheduled foliage hikes during the past three weeks at four state parks around the state. The hikes were guided by state forest rangers and turned out to be pretty popular, she said.
Although many feared that the rain earlier in the year might affect the foliage, Ross said the season has been typical.
“The rain actually set us up for a pretty good season,” she said. “Although some areas are getting a little beyond peak, it’s still very pretty out there.”
The department’s foliage report can be viewed at www.mainefoliage.com.