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Fall foliage: Vermont hopes leaf-peepers won't shy away

Fall foliage is a big draw in Vermont, but businesses that rely on tourism are battling the image that the state might not be the best place to take a vacation right now.

By Brian WitteAssociated Press / September 26, 2011

Golfers at the Stowe Mountain Golf Course enjoy early fall color on Sept. 16 in Stowe, Vt. In the first of its annual fall foliage reports, Ginger Anderson of the Vermont Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation says weather forecasts for cool nights with adequate moisture and healthy trees portends a good foliage season.

Toby Talbot/AP

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MONTPELIER, Vt.

The Vermont Foliage Force wants you to know: There's plenty of wide-open leaf-peeping opportunities, regardless of storm damage to roads in the middle of the state.

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Although Vermont is still working to repair roads in the aftermath of Tropical Storm Irene, a coalition of Vermont tourism interests are underscoring that three weeks have gone by since the storm, and about 95 percent of the state's roads are open for tourists to enjoy the start of fall foliage season and other outdoor activities and festivals.

"We are really ready for people to come, and we just really want to invite people to support us at this time and really experience fall foliage at its finest," said Megan Smith, the state's commissioner of tourism and marketing.

Some inns were closed in the days after Irene and a few harvest festivals scheduled for mid-September were canceled. Now, businesses that rely on tourism are battling the image that the state might not be the best place to take a vacation right now.

"The main concern that we had was that there was a misconception that Vermont was impaired for foliageseason when that's not accurate," said Jen Butson, a spokeswoman for Ski Vermont in Montpelier.

The foliage season is getting under way this weekend, as leaves in the top northern third of the state already have color. The fall foliage season brings in about $300 million in business for the state each year.

Worries about storm damage didn't stop a group of British tourists from making their trip to Vermont. Barry Edwards arrived from the United Kingdom on Wednesday. Early Friday afternoon, he was snapping a picture of red leaves on a tree next to the Morse Farm Maple Sugarworks in Montpelier.

"It's an organized tour, so if there was anything to worry about I'm sure we would have been informed about it," Edwards said. "We've seen the repairs going on to the roads. It's good to see that it's being done so quickly."

Said Brian Mackay, who also is traveling with the group from England, "It was no real concern to me."

Barb Smith, the manager of Morse Farm, said the popular stop for tour buses has had a few cancellations due to road closures, which created detours long enough that buses couldn't squeeze in the stop.

"I'd say a little less," Smith said, referring to the number of bus stops for this time of year.

Still, the state's tourism commissioner said there's some concern about whether people within driving distance of Vermont will make the trip.

"I think the thing we're kind of on the edge of our seats now is the person that books last minute," Megan Smith said. "That's the unknown to us right now, and that's who we're really trying to reach out to."

Courtney Lowe, director of sales and marketing at the Woodstock Inn & Resort, which canceled reservations for all of September, said reservations have been picking up over the last 10 days. Lowe said the inn is set to reopen Friday.

"We definitely see our phones picking up tremendously now," Lowe said Friday afternoon. "It's going to be a very good foliage season as far as the leaves go."

Jim Nielsen, general manager of the Hawk Inn and Mountain Resort in Plymouth, said the resort opened last weekend to host a wedding, and another wedding was scheduled for this weekend. But he said reservations have been a little soft, and the resort is offering discounts of close to 30 percent off regular rates.

"It's been a little slow," Nielsen said. "We're putting some packages up right now to entice some people over the next three or four weekends," Nielsen said.

Lt. Gov. Phil Scott is racing, literally, to get the word out that Vermont is well on the mend from Irene and ready for tourist. He was to drive a bright green stock car at the New Hampshire International Speedway on Saturday to showcase that Vermont is resilient and open for business. His stock car bears the vermontvacation.com website on the front.

"What we're finding, I think, from our tourism standpoint is that many people are calling to cancel because the national media has said, and quite appropriately, that we have some problems here in the state, but with a broad brush it's not throughout the whole state, and there certainly are many, many areas of the state that are willing and able to handle our tourism customers in this important foliage season," Scott said at a news conference Thursday.

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