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Leaf peepers will come from near and (not so) far, say three tourism industry watchers

In a world of pandemic-fueled uncertainty, two things are a given this fall: New Hampshire’s foliage will change, quite possibly in exquisitely colorful ways, and people will come here to see that transformation.

But what longtime tourism industry watchers are saying, however, is that there will be a difference in the composition of those crowds: There’ll be no bus-tour visitors, no international visitors, and very few from west of the Mississippi.

In short, our visitors will be from New Hampshire, New England and the Mid-Atlantic states, and Marti Mayne, Greg Keeler and Paula Kinney think there’ll be lot of them.

Mayne, the 30-year-plus public relations manager of the Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce, predicted that because of a state-wide drought, the 2020 New Hampshire foliage season will be a brief but vibrant one.

“Mother Nature will not disappoint us with her pageant of beauty in the White Mountains, and I do expect that, yes, the colors will change and people will come to seem them,” said Mayne.

But Canadians, who normally fill the valley in the fall, won’t be there, because the United States-Canada border is closed to limit the spread of COVID-19. Nor will travelers come from Europe and Asia, she said, nor California and Texas.

Additionally, most foliage bus tours have been cancelled or postponed until 2021, which is a tough blow to a wide range of businesses that count on that seasonal influx.

A fourth factor that could create room for more local visitors is that this year’s Fryeburg Fair is virtual, which means thousands fewer people in the Mount Washington Valley in mid-October, Mayne said.

“The silver lining ... is that for the first time, people from New England who in the past have been scared away” from all the far-flung crowds will take the opportunity to take in the colors in 2020.

And as the valley’s summertime experience has indicated, there’ll be more day-trippers, said Mayne.

“All of the travel trends are that people are feeling more and more comfortable taking vacations, but close-to-home vacations, and that points to why we expect it’ll be a New England/drive-in crowd.”

Right now, most lodging establishments in the Valley have vacancies but Mayne advised would-be visitors to “book now or forever hold your peep,” since those vacancies won’t last long.

Greg Keeler, sales and marketing manager at Cannon and Franconia Notch State Park, said the pandemic has forced the park to suspend operation of the aerial tramway and to limit the number of per-hour visitors at the Flume Gorge.

Every summer and fall, both venues normally see “hundreds of bus tours,” said Keeler, but this year there have been none.

Regardless, both sites have been busy and Keeler expects them to remain that way through the foliage season.

“We can assume that (leaf peepers) are going to do what they do every weekend which is to come up and hike,” he said. “Our tram parking lot (which provides overflow parking for trailheads in Franconia Notch) has been filled to capacity on nice days and the tram is not even operating.”

“We’re expecting to see levels of visitors that are even higher than the high levels of hikers we’re getting right now,” said Keeler, and “we are staffing parking lots and talking to people and giving advice.”

Though the Flume Gorge has publicized its reduced operation in recent months, Keeler said it’s still not uncommon to have visitors come up from Boston and be surprised by the access restrictions.

“I’ll jump on the bandwagon here and encourage people to ‘know before they go,’” said Keeler, repeating the broader message of the state Department of Travel and Tourism that visitors should do some online homework as to what’s open and closed or requires reservations.

Some 50 miles northeast of Franconia Notch, the summer of 2020 has been hopping, according to Paula Kinney, executive coordinator of the Berlin-based Androscoggin Valley Chamber of Commerce.

Despite the pandemic forcing the chamber to cancel all three of its signature annual events — the Jericho Mountain ATV Festival, the Wingzilla Festival and RiverFire — “people still came” to the region, said Kinney, who is hopeful that a strong foliage season will help offset some losses.

“We’ve been very busy up here, and I noticed that we’re getting visited from all over New England,” said Kinney, and from as far away as New Jersey.

“I think they’re coming up here for a little bit of everything,” she said.

First and foremost is to ride ATVS, but there are more kayakers on area rivers, too.

“People just want to get outside and the COVID-19 pandemic is a great reason to go for a drive,” said Kinney.

She said leaves have started to turn in the North Country and should be in full color around Sept. 25.

Charyl Reardon, the president of White Mountain Attractions, agreed with her tourism colleagues about a revamped foliage season.

“New Hampshire residents are going to be more comfortable with coming this year because they know it’s not going to be as crowded,” she said, although the tradeoff there is that attractions could suffer because of the loss of groupings of bus-tour customers.

Foliage 2020