Tourists who flock to places like the Adirondacks and Catskills to check out nature's majesty in late September and early October tend to drive more than those who come for a summer getaway or a winter ski vacation.
Nevertheless, local and state tourism officials say the high cost of gasoline likely won't have a negative affect on the fall foliage season.
Michael Green of the American Automobile Association said the price at the pump hasn't impacted tourism this year. AAA doesn't compile numbers based on seasons, but its latest report on Labor Day weekend showed that gas prices, which were at record highs across the country, didn't dissuade people from traveling.
With a sugar maple in flaming orange color in the background, Karyn Ware of AuSable Forks checks her receipt Thursday after pumping gas at Stewart’s Shop in Saranac Lake. Both gas prices and fall foliage color are peaking right now, and tourism in fall is arguably more gas-intensive than in other seasons, since much of what “leaf peepers” do is drive around. Could high gas prices hurt tourism this autumn? Not necessarily, as Chris Morris reports.
(Enterprise photo — Peter Crowley)
Jim McKenna, president and CEO of the Lake Placid Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism, said people who travel in the fall tend to have a little more disposable income. He said people will still travel, and sometimes it's the retail sector that loses revenue due to the cost of gas.
"Instead of a bottle of wine, it might be a glass of wine type thing," he said.
New York state is tied with Connecticut for third highest average cost per gallon of gasoline at $4.10, according to the American Automobile Association's latest Fuel Gauge Report.
"Often times, people make travel decisions months in advance, and the last thing they want to do is cancel that trip just because gas prices are high," Green said. "So what they do is they try to find other ways to be economical and save money, because generally peoples' travel budgets are pretty fixed. What that means is that if gas prices are high, they have to save money somewhere else: Maybe they don't buy that extra souvenir, or maybe they don't go to quite as nice a restaurant.
"I would suspect that those sort of travel habits would be the same during fall foliage, but we don't do any of our own research on that as well."
The Adirondacks are often billed as a drive-to destination for people in nearby metropolitan markets like New York City and Montreal. Green said there's no evidence to suggest that driving trends have increased or decreased when it comes to vacations and trips.
"Driving hours have been pretty much the same in comparison to overall travel," he said. "We haven't seen any huge changes.
"But with that said, travel is up for every major holiday this year. It seems that travel is a bigger priority in people's lives. What we're seeing is that a lot more people are traveling, and this is despite the fact that the economy for many people is not great. What we've seen is some pent-up demand. In other words, people who may have wanted to take a trip last year or the year before have instead decided to wait until this year to take that trip. For some people, even though the economy isn't doing good, they do feel a little bit better about their future, and as a result, they're feeling more confident about spending their money on taking a trip."
McKenna added that modern automobiles often have better gas mileage than those of previous generations.
"How many more gallons of gas are you looking at (for a round-trip from the New York City metropolitan area)?" he said. "You're probably looking at maybe 40 gallons. And if you're looking at 50 cents a gallon more, or a dollar a gallon more, you're looking at under $50. I'm not saying that's not a lot of money - it is - but on a travel trip, it's not that much more."
Green noted that driving is always the preferred mode of travel when people are traveling for leisure.
"It's the most affordable and also the most flexible," he said. "It's generally cheaper than doing anything else, and nothing is more flexible than getting in your car and being able to drive wherever you want to go."
Tom Hyde is owner of Hyde Fuel Co., which has two gas stations in Saranac Lake and one in Tupper Lake. He said he does notice an uptick in gas sales during the fall foliage season, but when prices are higher, customers in general spend less on gas.
"Specific to the season, I don't have any way to analyze that data," Hyde said. "The higher the prices go, we see a decline in volume. The leaf season is pretty short, but we definitely see an increase in traffic, especially weekend traffic. Whether or not higher gas prices will specifically affect that, I do not know."
Eric Scheffel of Empire State Development, which oversees the I Love New York advertising campaign, said his agency doesn't have statistics on the 2012 travel season at this point, but he said the fall generally represents about 25 percent of total travel spending annually. New York's travel industry topped about $53 billion in 2011, a record for the state.
"Tourism numbers are trending up," Scheffel added. "The entire state is doing well. Depending on the time of year, different areas shine. Obviously, the Adirondacks and the Catskills are great for fall foliage. New York City has travel all year round. The Hudson Valley is also great for fall travel. It depends on the place you're talking about and the time of year."
McKenna said his office won't know for about a month how well this year's foliage season did, but for now it is passing the eyeball test.
"I think we're looking pretty good at this point," he said. "We've had relatively warm fall weather to this point, and I think that bodes well."