By Joe Rankin
Forests for Maine’s Future Writer
Autumn, or at least the fall foliage part of autumn, is rapidly disappearing in the rear view mirror. One day is golden — and red and maroon and orange — and then a fall nor’easter blasts through, stripping the color from the trees.
Fall in New England: Spectacular. Ephemeral. But you know what stays after the leaves flutter to the forest floor?
The green. As in money.
Fall foliage brings in a lot of it. People flock from all over to take in that show put on by the red end of the visible spectrum.
Tourism is Maine’s biggest, or second biggest, sector of the economy, depending on how you count things, and fall is the second biggest tourist season, behind summer and ahead of winter, said Steve Lyons, the director of the Office of Maine Tourism.
Getting a handle on the value of tourism is a slippery business — there are a lot of parts. But Lyons’ office uses lodging sales as the main barometer, since most people who are staying at cottages, hotels, motels and Airbnb’s are tourists.
In 2018 tourists spent $277 million on lodging between September and November, up from $260 million the year before, said Lyons.
“Fall makes up about 25 percent of lodging sales for the year and brings about 25 percent of our visitors. Sometimes it’s a little higher, as high as 30 percent. The summer tends to be 60 percent, the remainder in the winter time,” Lyons said.
There is some hunting season revenue included in that $277 million. But, said Lyons, most of it is probably due to foliage tourism. Surveys show that “hunting is only a small fraction of people staying in paid accommodations in the fall,” said Lyons. “The majority of hunters in Maine are Maine residents and most of them stay in unpaid accommodations such as their own camp or a friend’s camp.”
In the last five years the state has seen the percentage of fall tourist visits going up faster than summer, Lyons said.
While the Maine Office of Tourism uses lodging as its main gauge of tourism’s ups and downs, the economic benefit is in no way limited to motels. Fall tourists shop, eat in restaurants, buy gas and snacks and souvenirs; they visit museums, art galleries, craft centers and brew pubs; they walk, hike, bike and paddle.
“So, the money does get spread throughout the economy,” said Lyons. And then there’s the famous “multiplier effect” as those dollars get spent in other ways and in other ways after that and so on. The dollars keep circulating long after the leaves have turned brown on the forest floor.
Maine’s leaf peeping visitors come from all over. After all, New England has a worldwide reputation for fall color.
But interestingly, half the autumn visitors come from elsewhere in New England and a third from the mid-Atlantic states, including New York and Pennsylvania. Another important contributor? Canada, particularly Ontario and the Toronto area, said Lyons.
Obviously nature didn’t design autumn to create a spectacular fall show to boost Maine’s tourist economy. It’s all about evolution, about surviving and thriving. And it’s worth taking a detour into the biology of the foliage change, especially given the reality of a changing climate.
Basically, autumn is a temperate zone phenomenon. Temperate, as in seasons. In temperate zones, during the months of low sunlight, cold temperatures, and ice and snow storms, large, flat leaves can be a liability, so the trees evolved to shed them and make new in the spring, said Jay Wason III, a tree physiologist and assistant professor in the School of Forest Resources at the University of Maine.
Decreasing day length is a main driver of the timing of the color change, said Wason. But temperature and precipitation also play roles. You can see this by looking at the side of a mountain, where trees at higher elevations might change color earlier, reflecting colder temperatures, even though all of the trees on the mountainside are reading the same day length.
Plants sense changes in day length using special molecules called phytochromes and react by curbing production of chlorophyll, the green pigment that is the heavy lifter when it comes to photosynthesis and the pigment that makes plants green. In summer the trees are green because the leaves reflect the green portion of the visible spectrum. When chlorophyll production slows in the fall, however, underlying yellow and orange pigments, called carotenoids, are unmasked.
While other areas of the world have colorful autumns, New England’s all-too-brief fall is special because we have more tree species that produce the distinctive red pigments known as anthocyanins.
Anthocyanins are produced in the fall. We haven’t pinned down why exactly. Wason said one hypothesis is that these red-reflecting pigments are helping protect the leaves from damage by sunlight as the tree is working to siphon all the nutrients it can out of its leaves, nitrogen being the most important, before the leaf drops off.
Eventually all those colorful pigments break down in sunlight and freezing temperatures, leaving nothing but tannins that turn the leaves brown. We call that November.
Global climate change may lead to changes in the region’s fall foliage. Warmer temperatures could cause a shift in the timing; summer or fall droughts could affect color saturation. Tree species will move over time. Exactly how things will play out long-term is hard to predict. Research is ongoing.
But there’s little doubt that the fall foliage season will remain an important part of the state’s tourism-based economy. A substantial portion of Maine’s estimated 37 million visitors a year come in the fall. And the state is working to attract even more people.
The state tourism office’s ad campaign used to focus on the summer, said Lyons, but now the state runs a year round advertising campaign. “A goal is to make Maine a year-round four-season destination,” said Lyons.
The Office’s marketers hit trade shows to promote Maine, including those catering to tour operators. Motorcoach tours are busy in the fall and the state would like to attract as many of them as it can. “We find that when we talk to them, most are asking us what’s the fall like,” said Lyons.
The state runs digital ads, ads on buses and in train and subway stations, billboards, magazine ads. They swap out the visuals seasonally, meaning fall foliage photos or videos get their due as that season approaches. The campaign is based on “values” rather than demographics like age and income, said Lyons.
Ads are designed to appeal to a person’s sense of themselves as an individual who forges their own future, pursues their interests with passion, has a love of nature and the outdoors and is willing to take the road less travelled, if only to view the foliage.
These days the biggest interests of fall visitors “are food and drink,” said Lyons. “More people are travelling for culinary tourism nowadays than did years ago. They want to eat locally grown foods and drink craft beers. The outdoors is very popular in the fall, as are hiking, biking, and paddling and . . . shopping.”
Lyons understands, on a personal level, why people come to Maine to enjoy autumn. It’s just a beautiful time of the year, and a beautiful place. He’s an outdoors guy and “I like to drive back roads and see the views and take pictures. I’m also a hiker and biker. I like to go out on a fall day and hike a mountain. I find that really relaxing.”
Joe Rankin watches autumn from his home in New Sharon.