Irene blows apart New England travel plans

NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) — Brides rescheduled weddings, hotels struggled with cancellations and major tourist attractions like Connecticut's Mystic Seaport closed as Hurricane Irene headed toward New England on Friday, already delivering a blow to the region's tourism industry.

The powerful storm churned north on a path projected to hit the Connecticut shoreline Sunday. The timing of the storm — on one of the last weekends of summer — could hardly have been worse for an industry already coping with high gas prices and a weak economy.

Doreen Pearson, who owns the 21-room Stanton House Inn in affluent Greenwich, said Friday she had five multi-night cancellations and many more indecisive guests. Some callers from low-lying areas wanted guarantees the storm wouldn't affect them if they booked a room, she said.

"We're here now in a total state of flux because people can't decide whether they want to honor their reservation, cancel their reservation or make a reservation," Pearson said. "It's impossible to operate a business this way."

Even before the storm, AAA was predicting a drop in travel over the Labor Day weekend compared with last year because of the economy.

"It will be significant and to some degree it will be a permanent loss to New England," said Fred Carstensen, director of the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis. "What they were going to do this weekend they won't choose to do three weeks later."

Tourism is a major component of the region's economy. In Connecticut, the industry is responsible for 12 to 14 percent of the work force, Carstensen said.

In Maine, which bills itself as "Vacationland," Irene is expected to cause tens of millions of dollars of lost revenue for the tourism industry as people alter their travel plans or cancel trips altogether, said Charles Colgan of the University of Southern Maine's Muskie Institute of Public Service in Portland.

"If this had happened in July, people would've postponed their vacations and postponed their travel," Colgan said. "But a lot of the losses for tourism won't be recovered simply because of the timing."

At Pearson's B&B, Susan Royal was helping her daughter call wedding guests to let them know the ceremony would be held Saturday instead of Sunday at the bride's father's estate in Ridgefield. And it would be indoors.

"This will be a wedding you won't forget," Royal said, figuring about 50 of the original 85 guests would attend. "Nature has its course. What you do is work with it, not against it."

At Water's Edge Resort in Westbrook, one bride postponed her weekend wedding and another was sticking with her plans. The hotel had received eight cancellations by Friday morning but expected the number to rise and its popular Sunday brunch to take a hit.

"We're going to lose all that," general manager Chris Barstein said. "From a business standpoint, we're not too happy to see this."

Hotels said they were taking a number of safety measures, including securing backup generators, extra bottled water and staff on duty, bringing in outdoor furniture and providing frequent weather updates.

The timing of the storm — the last weekend before Labor Day — almost couldn't be worse, said Kathy Szabo, executive director of the Block Island Chamber of Commerce in Rhode Island. She said ferries that bring visitors to the island from Montauk, N.Y., New London, Conn., and Point Judith, R.I., are grappling with how to adjust their schedules — and what to do with their boats — given the uncertainty over the storm's path.

"Obviously they don't want to lose business," she said. "Nor do they want to lose their ferries. Even though you have to do what you have to do, you're losing your revenue for the end of the season, which is too bad."

Suzie Kiendl, an owner of Barnacle Inn on Nantucket, was pulling a boat out of the water Friday morning before the storm hits the island popular among tourists, likely on Sunday. Kiendl said some guests are cutting their vacations short and a few have canceled, but others have extended their stay and plan to ride out the storm at the inn.

"We lost a few people and gained a few ... revenues are definitely lost, but what can you do? You just have to relax," Kiendl said.

For now, she plans to fasten the shutters, take in the lawn furniture and "maybe have some champagne ready."

Some hotels were gaining business, too. In Connecticut, about 100 rooms were booked at the Stamford Marriott Hotel and Spa by utility crews and residents anticipating power losses.

"It's pretty substantial," said Peter Griffith, director of sales and marketing. "It's a huge pickup."

But a youth leadership conference at the hotel this weekend that would have been attended by about 100 high school students from several states was postponed.

"I think the students were pretty disappointed," said Elizabeth Ventura, one of the organizers. "They were all looking forward to it."

Some attractions in New Hampshire's White Mountain region, such as theme parks Santa's Village and Story Land, will be closed Sunday, taking a hit in revenue.

"It does hurt, because this is the 'last hurrah' week for families coming up before the end of the summer season," said Jayne O'Connor, president of the White Mountains Attractions Association. "Public safety takes precedence."

New Hampshire's Fish and Game Department urged hikers, campers and other outdoor enthusiasts to be home by Saturday night. All trails and campgrounds in the White Mountain National Forest will be closed.

Up and down New England's coast, recreational boaters were rushing to get their boats out of the water and onto dry land. At Portland Yacht Services in Maine, service manager Rob Benson said about 1 in 10 boaters told him they're done for the season.

Across New England, an early end to the boating system carries a hefty impact.

"If your boat is sitting in the parking lot, you're not putting gas in the tank, you're not stopping at the local variety store to buy groceries and sandwiches, you're not coming into the marine store to buy a life jacket," said Rob Soucy, president of Port Harbor Marine in South Portland.

Even some gamblers weren't willing to risk Irene.

"Obviously the weekend will not be what we thought it would be," said Jeff Hartmann, president and chief executive officer of Mohegan Sun, one of two Indian-run casinos in Connecticut.

___

Associated Press writers David Sharp in Portland, Maine; Erika Niedowski in Providence, R.I.; Kathy McCormack in Gilford, N.H., and Johanna Kaiser in Boston contributed to this report.

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