As summer says its unofficial goodbye with the close of Labor Day, the fall leaves are gearing up for the biggest show of the year.

The summer tourism season remains crucial for the state’s $7.7 billion annual tourism industry, but the leaf-peeping season and Columbus Day weekend have become the biggest moneymaker for hotels and restaurants.

“It’s the biggest change we’ve seen in 20 years. Columbus Day weekend is the biggest holiday of the year,” said Dick Grotton, president and chief executive of the Maine Restaurant Association. “A lot of retirees wait for the summer crowds to leave and vacation in the fall. We’ll have hundreds of bus tours bringing in business. It’s really very, very huge for us.”

The leaf-peeping bus tours create a “mob scene” for stores in Portland’s Old Port, such as Shipwreck & Cargo on Commercial Street, owner Brewster Harding said. Once mid-October passes, however, sales for the year fall off.

“We have to make our money from mid-May to mid-October. The season’s pretty much over by Oct. 20,” Harding said.

Businesses should be happy with this year’s leaf display. Mother Nature has been cooperating, setting up Maine for the best leaf peeping in years after several seasons of mediocre color displays because of bad weather, according to Gale Ross, Maine foliage spokeswoman.

“We should have a better-than-average foliage season. It will be the first year in quite some time we’ve had nearly normal conditions,” Ross said. “The warm days and cool nights will help the leaves along over the next few weeks.”

The first color showcase should peak in northern Maine toward the last week in September, followed by western, southern and central regions during the week of the Columbus Day weekend and into the following week. The coast is the last region to peak, Ross said.

“Once we start getting toward peak conditions, we don’t want any tropical storms. Last year, Hurricane Irene blew the leaves off trees and really dampened the leaf-peeper season,” Ross said.

Fall also marks the busiest time for cruise ships along the coast. A total of 38 ships carrying more than 20,000 passengers will enter Portland’s harbor in September and October, according to the Port of Portland.

Cruise passengers tend to be big spenders on souveners and Maine-made products, but they are less likely to eat in local restaurants, since they have meals on the boat, local business owners said.

“Now through the holidays is when we’re the busiest. Fall is stronger than Christmas, actually,” said Steve Anderson, manager of Edgecomb Potters Gallery on Exchange Street. “This is our profit margin for the year, these few months.”

Anderson said although cruise ships do bring in spenders, the store tends to do best with Amtrak travelers who come for the day from Boston.

The day-trippers come to spend and come throughout the year, rather just in the peak tourist season, he said.

A vibrant fall foliage season follows great summer conditions for travelers and locals alike. Maine had early warm temperatures in the spring and summer that has been normal or slightly warmer than normal, according to Chris LeGrow, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service. That compared favorably to the scorching temperatures that stifled Boston, New York and Philadelphia and sent tourists heading north for the more temperate climate.

“You can’t minimize the fact that weather was in our favor this year. It was nice here and very hot in the metro areas that feed us,” said Greg Dugal, executive director of the Maine Innkeepers Association.

From May through the end of July, traffic at the Maine Turnpike’s York toll plaza was up 1.3 percent from last year, according to Charles Colgan, professor of public policy and management at the Muskie School of Public Service at the University of Southern Maine. “Both May and June were up, but July was soft.”

Online requests for Maine vistor guidebooks rose 16 percent this year, said Carolann Ouellette, director of the Maine Office of Tourism. The state also launched an advertising campaign on the Red Sox Radio Network, which allowed it to change the content to highlight different fairs, festivals and special events throughout the season. The tourism board also did advertisements in suburban train lines such as the Long Island Rail Road, in New Jersey Transit and in Connecticut to tap the New York metropolitan market, which is the second-biggest pool of visitors, after Massachusetts.

More than 80 percent of Maine tourists are repeat visitors, so once the state lures someone, it has a loyal fan, Ouellette said.

In May, lodging and restaurant sales each rose about 7 percent from last year. In June, restaurant sales rose 7.6 percent and lodging surged 14.7 percent, according to the state planning office. Sales data for July were not yet available, so restaurants and hotels only had anecdotal evidence that sales may have been soft because the Fourth of July fell on a Wednesday.

“A mid-week July Fourth is the worst,” Dugal said. “People don’t know what weekend to take off, and Wednesday bookings are OK, but that’s only one night.”

Acadia National Park saw a saw a 17.6 percent jump in visits in May, and nearly a 4 percent jump in June. July, however, softened, with visits down 3.6 percent, the park said. Data for August were not yet available.

The first two weeks of August are typically the strongest of the summer tourism season. Overall, this August is expected to eclipse last year because of the general upswing in tourism in the state and favorable comparisons to last year, when Hurricane Irene dampened the end of August and curtailed many vacations.

Retailers and restaurants in Freeport reported flat-to-better sales for the season because of an influx of Canadian shoppers and new restaurant openings, said Janet Dutson, executive director of FreeportUSA, which represents the town’s merchants. The nice weather may have kept some tourists outdoors instead of inside shopping, Dutson said.

Funtown Spashtown USA, in Saco, said it benefited from the expansion of its water park and a tweak in its advertising to target more of the Boston market, according to Ed Hodgdon, head of marketing for the amusement center. He wouldn’t disclose ticket sales, but he said the park had seen an increase in tourists from Canada and southern New England in its peak season, from July 15 to Aug. 15. Funtown Splashtown typically closes on Labor Day, but this year it will hold a bonus day on Sept. 9 with discounted pricing.

“The summer tourism season has been reasonably improved over last year. July Fourth kind of messed things up a bit, but overall, there’s modest improvement this year,” Colgan said.


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