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Brighter forecast for Vt. tourism

Extended foliage season is a fitting reward for Irene cleanup efforts

Cheryl Senter for the Boston Globe

Diners at the Simon Pearce restaurant in Quechee can view the covered bridge damaged by Tropical Storm Irene.

The fall foliage season won’t be a total washout for Vermont.

As leaf peepers come out in droves throughout New England this holiday weekend, 99 percent of Vermont’s highways, many devastated by Tropical Storm Irene in August, are open, including Route 100, the scenic strip that was partially closed to vehicles until last week.

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“The recovery effort has been absolutely amazing on the state and federal level,’’ said Jeanne Karlhuber, owner of the Snowed Inn in Killington. “They pretty much brought about a miracle, making access to the area.’’

Irene made September a bad month for tourism. Visitors were unable to drive across the state and flood damage forced many bed and breakfasts and popular attractions to shutter. But with the cleanup all but complete and good weather in the forecast, many business owners say they expect this weekend to be the start of a strong October.

An extended foliage season should help. In some parts of the Green Mountain State, trees have peaked, while southern areas are just starting to see some color. Warm nights have pushed off the change by a few weeks setting the stage for a postcard-ready foliage season in unison with Columbus Day, state officials say.

“It’s a perfect storm finally, right on time,’’ said Megan Smith, commissioner of tourism and marketing for the state of Vermont. “We won’t recoup that business when everyone was paralyzed, but now it’s hard to remember that.’’

After images of Vermont’s bridges and villages underwater splashed across the media last month, the state has been able to turn that message around, thanks to an aggressive marketing campaign. Officials spent an extra $50,000 on radio and TV ads, as well as billboards. They worked social media channels and created digital postcards with foliage scenes to entice people back.

Much was at stake: Vermont hosts about 3.6 million visitors between September and November who generate $332 million in spending, according to state officials.

“We all hunkered down together and used every ounce of our energy to make sure we were doing everything we can,’’ said Smith.

So far it’s working.

Linda Edleman, owner of Custom Tours Inc. in Montpelier, had to reroute a dozen fall foliage motor coach trips last month. As more of the state becomes accessible day by day, she’s able to offer a panoply of options, including a fall train ride.

“When Irene hit I needed to assess the situation because people rely on me for correct places to go. I called them back and said ‘Come, it’s going to be great.’ And they did and it is,’’ said Edleman, who is down to one logistical workaround on Route 107.

She predicts she will do the same amount of business as the last two years, but will not see prerecession highs. “We are holding our own,’’ she said.

Of the 500 miles of state roads affected by Irene, only 14 miles remained closed this week, said Sue Minter, deputy secretary for Vermont’s Agency of Transportation. Route 107 in Stockbridge, Route 131 in Cavendish, and Route 106 in Weathersfield are the main trouble spots. In several cases, rivers turned these roads that lead to hiking and majestic state forests into 200-foot canyons and several miles of road needs to be rebuilt.

At popular tourist attraction Simon Pearce in Quechee, which reopened Sept. 16 after a three-week shutdown, visitors flocked to the restaurant overlooking a picturesque waterfall this week. The glassblowing workshop, which suffered the most damage from Irene, is still shuttered.

To appease curious travelers from across the country, photos of glass bowls being unearthed from mud and a video of the mill-turned-work-studio being thrashed by the angry Ottauquechee River are on display in the gift shop.

“Our customers feel a deep connection to the brand, and they want to know the full extent of it,’’ said Ross Evans, director of marketing for Simon Pearce.

Similarly, tour guides at Custom Tours tell harrowing tales of downed bridges and near misses to tourists on bus trips through the state. “That’s the first thing they ask,’’ said Edleman.

Admission was down in September at the Billings Farm and Museum in Woodstock. But as the roads and weather improved, it’s gradually picked up, said Susan Plump, public relations coordinator. “Right after the storm we were 70 percent off,’’ she said.

The museum and working dairy farm, located a half-mile north of Route 4, saw an uptick when the road reopened Sept. 23. “If it’s nice weather for the full next week, business should be equal to last year,’’ said Plump.

Buzzy Buswell of New England Vacation Tours, who had to reroute his motor coach tours last month to Massachusetts, was relieved to be traversing Vermont’s highways and byways with little trouble this week and noted the return of autumn tourists.

“I’m seeing more people on the road, and most hotels are booked solid this weekend,’’ he said.

Compared with last month, the roads in Vermont “are like night and day,’’ remarked Buswell. “They are not perfect, don’t get me wrong, but seeing the roads right after the hurricane, they literally moved mountains.’’

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