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Saturday February 4th

Tourism rises as leaves fall in western North Carolina

Fall at the Linville River in Burke County, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of
Buy Photos Fall at the Linville River in Burke County, North Carolina. Photo courtesy of

Tourism in western North Carolina has increased in recent years, driven by the appeal of the region's fall foliage.

Beverly Collins, a biology professor at Western Carolina University, uses science to predict the success of the season’s tourism. She said clear, sunny days and cold nights hurry the process of chlorophyll degradation.

“We had a really good year this year for photosynthesis, so the trees have been making lots of sugars — and that means they’ve been adding a lot of chlorophyll and other pigments to their leaves," Collins said.

She said as the weather gets colder, trees don't make as much chlorophyll. As the chlorophyll begins to degrade, the other pigments in the leaves become visible.

"Because the trees have put a lot of energy into making those pigments this year, they should be pretty bright,” Collins said.

Steve Morse, the director of the hospitality and tourism program at WCU, said much of the region’s new tourism stems from an outdoor recreation industry that has taken off.  

“Nine of the top 11 counties in tourist expenditure growth (last year) were in western North Carolina,” he said.

Eleanor Talley, a spokesperson for Visit NC, said fall is incredibly important to western North Carolina’s tourism, which is aided by the season's colors.

“We’re able to pinpoint the foliage forecast on Visit North Carolina over the course of the fall, so people who are trying to come and see fall color can find out where the peak color is,” she said.

Morse attributes the growth in tourism to a combination of nice weather and the state’s advertising efforts.

“They’re advertising the enormous outdoor recreation opportunities in western North Carolina that are year-round,” he said.

The region’s tourism peaks this month as the leaves change colors, Morse said.

“The most visited month in western North Carolina is October,” he said. “The fall foliage season is a weekend phenomenon here.”

Drew McRacken, a first-year at UNC from Morganton, said the tourism industry seems to be doing well. 

“This time of year is the bread and butter of western North Carolina,” he said.

Collins said she anticipates this fall’s colors to be on par with recent trends.

“I don’t think this year is going to be especially good," Collins said. "But I do think this year is going to be more typical — pretty much a typical fall." 

Talley said the variation of leaf colors between years does not change the appeal of western North Carolina.

“Even average color is pretty spectacular, so I think that, for the most part, our sense is that as long as the color is average, it’s pretty great to see,” she said. “I wouldn’t say that it has a huge impact on the season unless color ends early or starts early. This year, we’re on track to have a pretty normal year in terms of color from September to November.”

Mountain foliage reports can be found on Visit NC’s website.


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