Local tourism officials have weathered a wet autumn, and now
hopes turn to choose-and-cut Christmas trees to draw visitors to the region.
"Generally, the whole of October rained, so it was one long, dreary month," said Mac Forehand, director of the Boone Convention & Visitor's Bureau. "Leaves were gone fast, so probably it's (numbers) going to turn out so-so. The whole economic downturn continues and that's always hard on travel, because that involves discretionary spending. We're not really expecting October's numbers to be great."
October's occupancy statistics won't be released until Nov. 20, but early signs suggest tempered expectations. Forehand said September's hotel revenue in Boone was up 1.7 percent from September 2008, though that didn't necessarily mean tourism was back on track.
"Last September it wasn't just $4 gas, it was that there was no gas," Forehand said, recalling the busted pipeline that disrupted gasoline supplies across the Southeast. It also is generally considered the beginning of the recession, as construction permits and home sales also began declining around the same period. October 2008's occupancy revenue was up 4.4 percent from October 2007, and Forehand said if last month's figures decreased by that amount, it could be considered solid.
"I was at recent tourism conference, and the governor (Gov. Beverly Perdue) said 'Flat is the new up,'" he said.
Choose-and-cut Christmas trees have offered a short bridge season between leaf-lookers and skiers, with Thanksgiving weekend traditionally the busiest time for local farm visits.
Even the tourism mainstay of Appalachian State University football has taken some blows, with many of the home games dampened with rain.
"The leaves are pretty much gone but choose-and-cut is gearing up next week, and we'll segue into skiing," Forehand said. "However, it's staying warm. I heard someone say the other day that the ski slopes are mowing grass when they'd normally be blowing snow."
In Blowing Rock, September's occupancy numbers were down 7 percent from the same month the year before.
"That's about in line with the state (average)," Brown said. "It's definitely been a challenging year. It's been tough all around. People are looking harder for good deals. That's across every socioeconomic group."
Brown said tourism is not year-round in the region, so merchants had to work harder while customers were in town and recognize the limited window of opportunity.
"We're still busy on weekends, holidays and traditional travel times," Brown said. "But we still have 'shoulder seasons,' so merchants have to work harder in the busy times."
Sales tax revenues also point to a sluggish autumn. According to the Watauga County Finance Office, sales-tax collections passed back to the county by the state have declined over the previous year's totals for 11 months in a row. The county collected $877,872 in revenues in September for its 2 1/2 percent local option taxes, down from $1.08 million in the same month of 2008.
Statewide occupancy rates have been down about 4.5 percent over a two-year period. For the 2009 calendar year to date, occupancy rates are down about 10.6 percent.