by Andrew Turner
While the state reports higher tourism figures for this summer compared to last, locally the number of people coming to the Northeast Kingdom is lagging.
"The figures from our information booth are down and that surprises me," Northeast Kingdom Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Darcie McCann said Friday.
McCann said the Fourth of July vacation weekend showed a 24 percent drop in numbers from a year ago, while overall visitation figures are down about 12 percent.
"It surprises me because we have four different promotional advertisements out there that have gotten tremendous response," McCann reported.
Magazines such as Vermont Life, Yankee Magazine, Better Homes and Gardens and Vermont Travelers Guidebook have all displayed advertisements about the Kingdom to thousands of readers all over the country.
McCann attributes a large part of the problem to the vacillating nature of the state's information booth in Waterford, which has been closed off and on during the season.
"I think some of the factors are students got out of school later in June this year, therefore plans are being made later," McCann explained, adding, "But we're becoming cognizent of how important the Waterford information center is to us."
"Our decreased numbers are representative of its closure," she added.
McCann said the lack of access to information about the NEK by tourists is significantly detrimental to the area's tourism.
"If people aren't being told what's in the Northeast Kingdom in Watefford they may not venture into our towns and stay here," she said. "This is a concern we've voiced to the state. They're checking visitations elsewhere ... and we hope to address this issue post haste."
McCann said one of the first things her office did was call state tourism officials to alert them to the issue.
McCann said the state's figures are up around 10 percent from a year ago and that, "We're looking at a more targeted niche for our promotional efforts."
Interestingly to McCann is that requests for information are up from places like California, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Missouri, Pennsylvania and Ohio.
"We're down fairly significantly in Canadian visitors that we believe is primarily due to the change in the exchange rates which has changed significantly," she said.
Last year, the same sort of thing happened. Due to a lengthy winter and terrible spring weather, visitation figures were way off, but toward the end of summer and into the fall foliage season, numbers rebounded so healthily that final end-of-year figures rivaled record numbers. McCann said her group is hoping for that this year.
"We're getting many inquiries for August and are getting early strong inquiries for the fall," she maintained. "These numbers may rebound as they did last."
As for businesses, many are reporting stagnant numbers in terms of the amount of people coming in to shop or use other services. Campsites, meanwhile, seem to be the healthiest right now, McCann reported.
One ray of light has been the reworked Bradford tourism booth on Interstate 91 North, from which the chamber has received many leads.
"We have found that Bradford northbound (191) has been a tremendous boon to us. The staff is knowledgeable about this area and we have found strong increases coming from along the 191 cooridor," she said.
193 still remains the vital conduit for the NEK, though, McCann stressed. Tourists coming up from southern New England use the north-south route as a direct link to St. Johnsbury and beyond. As they first enter Vermont, the Waterford information center is their initial introduction to the area, something that is lost when the facility is closed.
"A lot of our visitor traffic comes from Massachusetts and New Hampshire," she said. "That presense is critical. One of the things unfortunately we rank last in is attracting people to the area."
Brattleboro and Bennington are first and second respectively while Burlington ranks a little lower. The Northeast Kingdom, however, is dead last. Tourism represents some 40,000 jobs and millions of dollars to the state economy each year and is considered the second largest industry, reflected locally as well.
"It illustrates how important it is to the state," she said.