The Economics of Fall Foliage Tourism in North Carolina

grandfather mountain with fall foliage


A number of years ago while I was having lunch in my favorite restaurant in Boone, I happened to have overhead a young couple at the next table complaining about not being able to find any hotel rooms to stay in that night, and they were contemplating having to hoof it all the way back to Wilmington as a result. Looking the two of them over, I concluded they were probably academics, since both sported T-shirts from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, a premier research facility located in Massachusetts. So I struck up a conversation with them and found out they were new biology faculty at the University of North Carolina – Wilmington (and from California, no less!), and this was their first trip to the North Carolina Mountains.

Unfortunately, they had decided to visit the High Country in mid-October during their fall break, which of course, is the peak of the fall color season here. And because "leaf peeping" as it is colloquially known, is one of the most popular fall activities around the world, not to mention the High Country of North Carolina, it's nearly impossible to find a hotel room up here at that time of the year. People who do come up often book several weeks to several months ahead.

Well, I felt sorry for the couple, their having driven so far, only to be frustrated by a lack of accommodations. Feeling a kinship for two fellow biologists, and because I lived just a block away at the time, I offered to let them stay in my house for the weekend. As a result, they did get to stay and experience the fall colors that year, and I made two new friends. In addition, as a result of my spontaneous offer, I indirectly contributed to the economic wellbeing of the High Country since the two of them stayed and spent money here (they did have to eat!).

The Dollar Value of Fall Color Tourism

This experience got me to thinking about just how important fall foliage is to the economy of North Carolina as well as to other states that have good fall color. Surprisingly, there is very little hard data on this. From what information I could glean from the literature, you would be amazed at the dollar amount. My conservative estimate is that fall color tourism contributes a minimum of $1 billion per year to the economy of North Carolina, concentrated into the three month window of September thru November. Across the 24 states in the eastern half of the country that I estimate have good fall color, leaf peeping may contribute upwards of $30 billion dollars. That's billions now, not millions. So why have economists not given it its due? Part of the reason may be that there is no consolidated fall foliage tourism advocacy group, no lobbyists of any kind, and hence this form of tourism falls beneath their radar.

Who are Fall Color Tourists?

There is very little information on the composition of the average fall foliage tourist. A study commissioned in Vermont in 2001, where tourism constitutes the largest source of income for the state's economy, showed the average fall foliage tourist to be middle aged (53 years old on average), with either a high school or college education, often travelling without children (which surprised me), and staying 2-3 nights per trip. In retrospect, the lack of children does make some sense: most leaf peepers are baby boomers whose children have fled the nest, plus those families with small children or teenagers have to contend with the reality that kids are simply not turned on by the prospect of staring at leaves while driving the back roads of the mountains.

Here in North Carolina there are no good statistics on fall foliage tourism: the 2009 NC Annual Report on Tourism doesn't even mention fall foliage tourism. Putting myself out on a metaphorical limb, I will hazard a guess that our tourists are slightly younger than those going to Vermont, because North Carolina demographics favor a younger population, that tourists here do bring their children with them (based on personal observations and the fact that there are other ancillary activities for kids here in the mountains) and they stay on average two days for each visit to the High Country.

I also suspect that a not insignificant proportion of our fall foliage tourists are from out-of-state, attracted by the fact that North Carolina probably has the best fall foliage displays in the south, in no small part because it has many high mountains, including Mt. Mitchell, the highest peak east of the Mississippi. The great elevational range means we not only have many of the same trees that contribute spectacular fall color in the north (maples, birches, beeches), but we also have an extended time for viewing as the fall color wave works its way downhill, about 1,000' every 5-7 days. Here in North Carolina, the leaf season begins in mid-to late September at the highest elevations, peaks in mid-October in the Boone area, while continuing late into November at the lower elevations in the state.

Another aspect that contributes to the popularity of our fall foliage tourism is our proximity to major urban areas with large populations. We are only a 3 to 5 hour drive away from Atlanta (the largest metropolitan area in the south), 2 hrs from Charlotte, 2.5 hrs from the Triangle, and just over a 6 hr drive if you live on the coast (say, in Wilmington!). In fact, an astounding 150 million people live within a 10 hr drive of the North Carolina Mountains!

How is Fall Foliage Tourism Money Spent?

Since most fall foliage tourists live outside the High Country, they have to drive to the area (major commercial flights are limited to Asheville unless you fly small planes). That means spending money on gas and car rentals. Once here, tourists have to stay somewhere, so there are lodging costs. Many motels raise their rates and require a minimum two night stay during peak color season. In addition, a high proportion of fall foliage visitors prefer Bed & Breakfast establishments which often have higher rates and more restrictive cancellation policies. And finally, tourists have to eat, so restaurants and convenience stores in the High Country benefit as a result.

What Does it Cost to Leaf Peep?

Let's assume the typical fall foliage excursion involves driving up on Friday, returning on Sunday, and includes two adults and two children. A typical night's stay at a motel or B&B might run $130/night (some rates will be higher; others lower, so this is a good average). This would cost the family $260. If we further assume that the average tourist comes from the Piedmont region (or somewhere comparable) and that it takes 2-3 hrs on average to get to the mountains (a distance of 150 miles plus 100 more for scenic drives), their car gets 25 mpg and gas costs $3.70/gal, then this would cost the family approximately $60 in gas. Finally, it could cost around $30/person/day for food which could cost a family of four up $200. Add in a few knick-knacks and your total fall foliage excursion might run $500. One estimate in New England actually found that the average visit cost a family double this, $1,000. Let's assume the average is right in between at $750. If you are frugal, and stay at a cheaper motel that has a free breakfast and you bring your own lunches, you might shave $200 off these costs. Thus, the typical family of four could spend anywhere between $400 and $1,000 on their visit. That's no small chump change and such expenditures are critical to the success of businesses in the mountains, many of whom depend on fall tourism to balance their books.

Is $1 Billion an Accurate Estimate of Fall Foliage Tourism in North Carolina?

If my estimate of $1 billion spent in the three fall months is accurate, and we take $750 as an average family of four's expenditures (which is close to the NC Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development's estimate of $700 for an out-of-state tourist), then my calculations suggest that the High Country should expect 1.3 M visits between September and November. If the average visit consists of four people, this comes to an estimated 5.2 M visitors to the mountains each fall. Dividing this number by the 75 days of the season gives us an estimated 69,000 visitors to the mountains each day. Such a crude calculation does not take into consideration peak foliage times when the crowds would be their largest, nor off-peak times with they would be much smaller, nor the fact that crowds tend to be largest on the weekends (when kids are out of school). So, to answer my own question, I think yes, $1 B seems a reasonable estimate of the financial impacts of fall foliage tourism, but as I show below, it might be an underestimate, in fact.

Why Fall Foliage Tourism May Contribute More than $1 Billion to North Carolina's Economy

In Massachusetts last year, there were 2.5 million fall foliage tourists who spent nearly $2.5 billion dollars ($1,000/visitor). New Hampshire and Maine together attracted over 16 million visitors last year and those tourists spent $2.6 billion dollars (which only translates into $163/visitor, a far cry from the estimate in neighboring Massachusetts, and which makes me suspicious of these numbers!).

Michigan, not normally considered a fall foliage destination state, but which in fact has huge tracts of colorful forests, estimates that one in three state residents (nearly 3 million of them!) will take a trip in the fall to view fall colors. The state expects these tourists to spend $400 on each trip. Fall foliage viewing in Michigan accounts for nearly 25% of the state's tourist economy (amounting to nearly $3 billion) and is growing, just like it is in New England.

Given that North Carolina has more mountains, nearly the same population as either Michigan or all of New England combined, it seems quite possible that my $1 billion estimate of the fall foliage economic impact in North Carolina is way too low, perhaps by 50% or more!

Why Studying the Economic Impact of "Leaf Peeping" is Important

Consider the results of that study commissioned in Vermont on fall foliage tourism: it also showed that for each $1M spent on tourism 38 jobs were created, and for every dollar spent on tourism an additional $0.69 in spending was generated within the state. If such figures were applied to North Carolina, and assuming the low estimate of $ B in fall foliage spending, they would translate into 4,000 jobs and $69M in additional tax revenues within the state.

The uncertainty associated with fall foliage tourism figures in North Carolina suggests to me that the state needs to conduct a detailed and thorough analysis of these purported economic impacts. Such data may help local, regional and state governments better promote fall foliage tourism and to assist with the planning necessary to make sure that there are adequate facilities to accommodate all of these people and those who may come in the future. This is all the more critical when the state reports that out-of-state visitations have declined in recent years, perhaps a consequence of the recession, or, inadequate marketing. For example, we rank 24th out of 50 states in state allocation to tourism marketing, and rank only 9th in the south. It seems to me that these potentially huge tourism numbers would justify more attention be paid to attracting people from out-of-state than is currently being done.

Literature Materials Used in This Essay:

The 2011 Census (; 10 Things Leaf-Peepers Won't Say by Jami Makan, Oct. 11, 2010, Smart Money Magazine online; Fall Foliage Commerce by Brad Kane,, Sep. 9, 2010; The Economics of Leaf-Peeping by Francis Storrs, October, 2010, Boston Magazine; The Impact of the Tourism Sector on the Vermont Economy: The Input-Output Model, by Dept. of Community Development and Applied Economics, University of VT, 1999; Profile of the Annual Fall Foliage Tourist in Vermont: Travel Year 2001, by Vermont Tourism Data Center, October 2002; AAA Michigan – Fall Travel Statistics for 2010; 2009 Annual Report, North Carolina Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development.