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How Was Your Vacation Economy?

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Readers may have inferred that I am taking a bit of a holiday. I’m currently in coastal Maine (Casco Bay) and have gone to this area at this time of year for the last 20+ years, which makes it possible to judge how the economy here is doing over time (remember, tourism is a major business for Maine and summer, particularly August through Labor Day, is the peak of tourist season).

Given that various seers have become less keen about the recovery thesis, and the Fed is sufficiently concerned that Bernanke has all but promised another round of QE is imminent (as if the last two did much to help people outside the speculative classes), I thought it would make sense to get reader input on what they’ve seen in the last few weeks, particularly if they either live in or visit vacation areas at this time of year.

I’m curious to get other readings on Maine and the US generally, but the indicators here really are mixed. Some spots, particularly in my immediate environs, are clearly busier than last year. I also saw more new shops, mainly of the cute upscale sort, than in quite a few years. But Freeport, home of LL Bean and outlet stores, was stunningly empty over Labor Day weekend (this could be secular, since the Internet has likely reduced the appeal of outlet stores). Boothbay Harbor also seemed less hopping than usual. Traffic generally was a bit heavier than last year. Overall, 2012 seemed somewhat stronger than 2011, but not as good as even 2010, at least in terms of crude indicators like raw visitor levels. And there were more houses for sale this year than any time in the post crisis years. That might net out to signifying that the cohort that has reasonably steady employment is spending more, but the lower tiers of our stratified economy are showing even more visible signs of stress than before.

NC readers: Have you observed anything first hand over the last few weeks that gives you a sense of how your local/holiday economy is doing? If so, what do you make of it?

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48 comments

  1. reslez

    From what I’ve seen, things are down compared to last year, even though the statewide economy is almost as good as it gets outside of D.C. We vacation on Lake Superior in Wisconsin. It’s a vacation town but a lot of shops have closed compared to two years ago. When we chartered a boat we noticed we were the first people to charter it that season, which is unusual. Also the rental office has been hitting us pretty heavily with sales calls to charter again, etc. The local CEOs still have their huge vanity boats but it seems other people are holding back.

  2. leafy sea dragon

    My childhood best friend lives in Maine, and I had high hopes of visiting her last month, but decided to stay home and work instead. That says something.

    Our local area hit some sort of housing bottom this summer. 4 or 5 grand victorians were for sale in foreclosure and sitting on the market for half a year or so when suddenly the market heated up and they were all snatched up within a month or two of each other. But there’s still a pile of distressed homes that are parading down the pipeline so the “bottom” will probably be a fat one.

  3. Middle Seaman

    We live in the DC area. This place is busy, people buying a lot, restaurants are full and the Northern Virginia and some of the Maryland suburbs are rich as ever.

    Ten days in upstate NY, Vermont and New Hampshire were mixed. Many restaurants and hotels were full but merchants talked about a tough economy.

    Three weeks in supposedly depressed California were quite surprising. One couldn’t find “for sale” signs neither in San Diego nor in San Francisco. Even low middle class neighborhoods in San Diego were well kept and no selling signs were easily detected. (I did drive around to find out how people are doing.) North County, the area north of the city were houses are in 7-8 digits you had to wait 30-45 minutes for lunch as at a half decent eatery. San Francisco shows massive rise of in price of housing. Many stores are full and everything is fast moving.

    Things are bad outside the big cities. Many closed stores, cars are much older, people don’t walk around with bags of new buys. Universities are really feeling the squeeze.

    1. Carla

      A friend of mine came up with this slogan for a protest sign:

      D.C. = DICTATORSHIP BY CORPORATIONS

      I thought that was pretty good. Glad you ventured out of the coastal cities, Middle Seaman, because the coasts are NOT the country!

    2. leafy sea dragon

      Real estate in San Francisco is costly and unavailable because of a localized economic boom due to the recent explosion of ipod apps/Zynga games/FB job creation.

      In my little California town I’ve seen housing prices dip as low as they were 13 years ago (pre-bubble). This is a dying rural industrial town on a bay, and as often happens there is another town, the college town, across the bay. Over there prices have stayed up, falling perhaps only 30%. Seems many of these comments reflect the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Affluent urban areas recovering and everyone else feeling the squeeze.

      Also, I was born in Rochester, New York. A lovely city, home of Kodak (now bankrupt). I’m not sure if somehow the taxes are funneled off to the Big Apple, but the tax burden is overwhelming there, enough to drive off businesses. When I visited last summer, there were cranes deconstructing empty skyscrapers, deleting them from the middle of the city. absolutely apocalyptic.

      1. rotter

        at least they are tearing down the buildings they have no use for, rather than letting them rot down..that would be a great stimulus program – across the country from coast to coast, demolishing commerical and residential buildings and developments that have no (real) prospects – there are whole vast tracts of new houses that should be torn down, and plenty of large,empty, commercial buildings (many of them brand new)..The land in most cases should be allowed to return to scrub or feild. That would not only serve two good practical purposes (economic and environmental), it would serve to educate americans as to where we really, truly are..not building a glorious future, but cleaning up the remnants of a future past.

  4. SubjectivObject

    Visited the South Coast Mall, South of LA, near Newport, for the first time this weekend. It is probaby the LA area’s premier Ritz blitz venue. A veritable phalanx of living mannequins ignored me. Spooky. The place was fully stuffed and Christmess packed. Not a large percentage actually carrying purchases though. I bought a pair of socks to try.

  5. C

    My “vacation economy” is basically the same as my day-to-day economy. It seems that it was the same for most of my neighbors too this holiday weekend. Which I guess reflects the economy pretty well.

  6. R Foreman

    Hope you’re having fun in Maine Yves. Here in Denver, Co. I can’t really judge the tourism activity, since I’ve been preoccupied with work and an out-patient medical procedure, but I know of one dermatology office which will be quite happy once I (and my insurance company) pay them. At least my income has been holding up quite steadily, so I know I’d be travelling if other events weren’t interfering.

  7. bhikshuni

    Great question and welcome back to the front pages!

    I had a month in the SMU area of Dallas near (very wealthy area) Highland Park, and people appeared to be holding their own, so to speak, although I did get hit up a few times by beggars.

    Ten days in rural northwestern France had me shocked to see commerce in absentia; never mind 24 hour convenience stores or petrol pumps, the only thing open after 7pm were restaurants. I was told a lot of enterprises were closed for the summer holiday season, with people away. Apparently it was all normal, but compared to SoCal and east Asia I was surprised to find a place without 7-Eleven! It seemed to me a statement of its own, that these people had better things to do than micro-shopping, such as dining with friends and family!

    A week in Colorado southwest of Denver (Crestone) and the place looked financially bifurcated: real estate changing hands among retirees but not much enterprise for young families or students to leverage (although someone has to look after the homes. That area’s tourism trade could be developed more I suspect.

    Back in So Cal, LA County is humming as usual with its endless profit of being a port city; this town alone has at least three 99 Cent-only stores for moving all the surplus, not to mention at least 3 health-food stores, in addition to a few massive supermarkets.

    I drove up Mt Baldy behind here yesterday, and the Angeles Forest park area was full of campers and day-trippers looking to represent a wider diversity of economic classes, although I can’t say I spotted any 1%-ers. I was glad to see local people having the sense to make the most of their nearby scenic areas, and that to me is an auspicious omen!

  8. Fishbumm

    About 2 hours from Chicago, around Lake Michigan in Southwest Michigan, there’s a large resort community. In my corner, Sister Lakes, there has been a noticable uptick in waterfront sales ( 100 % YoY). Almost all of it from Chicago’s Financial industry, many cash buyers but for personal use not investment.It makes sense, this asset class has been marked down 25 to 35%, so it appears cheap relative to stocks and bonds. Plus it’s an inflation hedge.

    Outside of the resort community, here it is a depression.

  9. Kokuanani

    I live in a “vacation spot” [Maui] year-round.

    The local media cover tourism numbers extensively, since it’s the island’s and state’s lifeblood. What they say, which is confirmed by my observation, is that tourism is up. However, a good portion of this increase comes from persons who don’t live on the US Mainland: Canada [lots!!], Chinese [new air routes being added], Japan. Apparently these folks have the money, even if Americans do not.

    On the other hand, the merchants that “locals” use continue to suffer hard times. Two of the major “malls” here have many closed shops. I guess all those tourist dollars spent on t-shirts, hotel rooms, restaurants, trinkets and touristy-amusements don’t — or haven’t — trickled down to those who actually live here.

  10. David Lentini

    Hi, Yves!

    Here in Southern Maine and coastal New Hampshire, I’d say that the ecnomy has been flat to slightly declining. Some shops and restaurants that closed were replaced with new businesses, but on balance it’s net negative. A friend who owns a restaurant in Biddeform Pool told me and my wife she had a strong summer, but my colleagues on the local school board say otherwise and refer to many families in distress. We’ve seen lots of local logging and received solicitations for logging that emphasized quick cash.

    BTW, we live in North Berwick. You’re more than welcome to stop by and meet us and our three cats!

  11. rjs

    for whatever it’s worth, the geauga county fair has been unusually crowded this year…that’s 35 miles east of cleveland; the observation is that it’s close and cheap (a couple bucks to get in, dozens of free agricultural buildings)

    so people are finding family entertainment where they dont have an initial 3 figure outlay…

  12. burnside

    Sarasota looks to have righted itself. Offshore racing events well-attended and a good Summer family-travel season just now winding down. Rather better than average.

    Missing from the mix, however, is the once highly visible newly-enriched. No thickets of Hummers, Rolex Oysters, the panoply of show. This is a wealthy town, but I don’t hear the buzz of schemes and tactics here any longer.

  13. Robert Asher

    Try vacationing at Walmart. Notice the increased spreads between shelves. I estimate store stock is down 30%.Check out the lower and lower quality of the goods Walmart sells.Then, while you are deservedly enjoying your vacation, ask local cab drivers, carpenters and electricians if they are having trouble making their mortgage payments. If you want to see the poor, who are not invisible, it really is not that difficult.

  14. taunger

    Martha’s Vineyard is rocking again after some weak summers. Lots of new restaurants – some aren’t gonna make it, but at least they’re trying. All of the menus are more expensive than in the past, even the local brewpub, which also has plans for expansion.

  15. John Zelnicker

    Down here in LA (Lower Alabama) we are continuing to recover from the BP Oil Spill. Quite nicely for the folks on or near the beach. I hear this will be their best season since 2007, the previous best. There is a large cohort of Snowbirds from the Upper Midwest who come to vacation at Gulf Shores and Orange Beach in the winter and they helped to keep things going after the spill. Unfortunately, the seafood industry is still struggling even though the scientists give a clean bill of health to the seafood caught around here. It is also the case that the economy is not so good in the city of Mobile. We look for that to change next year as EADS/Airbus will start building their $600 million aircraft assembly plant at the old Air Force base near downtown.

  16. Steve

    We live in Lovell, ME and shop in Bridgton and North Conway, NH. If you want some traffic, try North Conway or Conway main drags.

    I think we’re seeing the usual influx of Porsche’s and BMW’s. Lots of new faces jogging through the village. Without putting numbers to it, looks like a normal group of summer folk.

    Please stop by if you’re out our way.

    Steve

  17. seabos84

    White River campground was packed 2 weekends before labor day – this for a no reservation campground. The Holier-Than-Thou Biodegradable Organic Tofu light impact campers, with their 30 to 40 grand Subarus, were out in force – as were the people who like toys & have the big trucks to haul the toys. All camprounds along the mountain loop highway were full last weekend – but – there are plenty of reservations open once school starts … and it is cooler … and there aren’t any freaking bugs …

    rmm
    seattle.

  18. sleepy

    I drove/ferried from Iowa to Newfoundland and back.

    The interior Northeast–upstate NY and interior Maine looked increasingly Appalachia-like. This was particularly noticeable when compared to New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland–provinces that while traditionally poor by Canadian standards, seemed far more prosperous.

    Going, I had driven I-80 through the rust belt. Returning, I drove through Quebec and Ontario. The difference between the south sides of Lakes Ontario and Erie (the US side) and the north sides of those lakes (the Canadian side, Toronto, etc.) was the economic equivalent of the difference between San Francisco and Fresno.

    Hard to believe that Buffalo is so close to metro Toronto.

    1. Mel

      Jane Jacobs wrote about the relationship between big cities and satellite cities. Buffalo is a satellite of New York and inititiatives tend to be taken in NYNY instead. Without the international border Toronto could be the same. Business-wise, when things got tough in Toronto demand loans got called in Vancouver. Similarly for the prosperity in DC: there will be money in DC, for a while, when there is no money anywhere else.

  19. Jill

    I live in Toledo. I took a drive into the countryside which caused me, tragically, to miss Obama’s visit here. I also drove through parts of the city I haven’t been to in about 1 year.

    In the city, things are bombed out. While these areas were not ever rich, they were thriving. There were many small business, places to eat, small music stores, a florist, etc.–all gone, buildings abadoned. Houses were vacant. Many FSBO signs in properties that once housed people.

    I noticed this in suburbs and further out in the countrsyide as well. The number of empty houses is staggering. Many homes are FSBO. I saw one sign for Obama and one for Romeny, that’s it. I saw one for Gary Johnson in a more affluent area of the countryside.

    I went to get shoes at the mall. The store had a good sale. The sales people told me they’d had very few people all day and that last month’s sales were terrible. They said people used to come in and at least look around, but this weekend no one was hardly coming in, period.

    There seem to be less check cashing stores than before. Every person I talk to is scared. Even people who are not hurting for income are scared.

    On an amusing side I did see the classic pray for peace and Obama sticker side by side near his HQ in a smaller town near here. I also overheard some young people complaining that the Obama people had come to their door asking: “Are you with Obama”. I haven’t heard of Romney people stalking door to door at all, with or without asking cult like questions such as–are you with Mitt?

  20. Anchard

    Camden ME last week was similarly deserted (we were there twice, the second time on the Friday before the big weekend), as was Belfast.

  21. Glen

    Mrytle beach at the end of July was humming but it seemed to be more short term vscationers. Savanah was a little quite.

  22. tyaresun

    Just check prices for vacation packages. A buddy of mine did the inside passage Alaska cruise for 800 bucks, outside cabin and all. That is just a ridiculously low price.

    You can see really low prices for other spots.

  23. janie

    We’re retired and travel in an RV. Until a few years ago, we never saw families living in campgrounds through necessity. Now, we encounter both the poorly educated, but used to make a living with their hands, types who can’t do the laundry until a little money comes in as well as those who have been foreclosed upon living in their travel trailers. I wonder about the effect on the children of changing schools frequently and if they’ll be resilient enough to cope with their changing circumstances.

    At least one membership campground chain is working to change its rules and offer financing so that members can live in the campgrounds and not have to change schools. Previously, the rules were structured to prevent that sort of thing. Of course, not many people are rushing out to buy new memberships these days.

    We are currently near Santa Fe and Taos. There are not many vacant businesses, but merchants are not happy and everyone is worried – except for the activity in very high-end galleries. The flea market north of Santa Fe has declined i the last two years – and was in decline then.

  24. Abelenkpe

    Los Angeles and Santa Monica beaches just as crowded as ever with tourists, malls and restaurants packed, beaches overflowing. No slowdown evident.

    Talking to other locals though they are concerned about the economy.

  25. PQS

    I live outside of Seattle in a middle-class area with smatterings of upper middle classes (doctors, some attorneys, etc. Not the 1%) plus plenty of blue-collar workers (skilled trades).

    We popped into Target yesterday to pick up a few things, and it was packed with families and college kids buying school supplies. I also noted that the middle class mall nearby was packed with cars, (as it was last holiday season,) so apparently SOMEBODY out there has money to blow on overpriced mass market crap.

    I refuse to travel on Labor Day, as the traffic getting home makes the whole trip a pain.

  26. Susan the other

    Here in ski country, our little town crashed in 2008-09. One third of the realtors left town. The tourists dropped off and the 3 local resorts and all the restaurants reported a 30% drop in revenue. Lawsuits for improper money handling filled the newspaper and the court house. The sky wasn’t cross-hatched with contrails for another 2 years. But we still got our tourists and day trippers, enough to survive. And just last summer, coming home from NYC, I heard from the shuttle driver that our local economy is only off by 20% this last year. You can’t tell by looking at the town. It is well maintained and properly managed. Real estate prices are still down from 2007 by about 30%, but they are now coming back slowly. The good stuff anyway. Some outlying places aren’t bouncing back much.

    1. Fake Cowboy

      I live in the bedroom community for Jackson Hole (60 mile commute over a 9,000′ pass with two major avalanche paths crossing the highway). The banks are dribbling out the foreclosures to try to put a floor under the market, which crashed as much as 50% for housing and 80%! for some categories of land! Big golf course development went bankrupt and was bought by a hedge fund for pennies on the dollar. To their credit they spent a ton of money on landscaping and exterior paint on the golf course “cabins” and bumped the asking price up 100%. Huntsman Springs fiasco resort (yes, that Huntsman) is offering a ten year buyback guarantee if you are sucker enough to buy one of their “cabins.”

      Over on the Jackson side in Teton Village, Four Seasons is booked solid for the Labor Day weekend with rooms starting at $550 per night, and the budget $250 hotels are equally at 100% occupancy. Surprise surprise. Walton Ranch (1600 acres with a conservation easement only permitting one house)just went on the market for 100 million. Banksters have to put their money somewhere—-.

      Impossible to be served a beer in Jackson except by a barmaid from eastern Europe here on a temporary work permit working for minimum wage and living 6 to a one bedroom apartment.

      1. Fake Cowboy

        Moved from Vancouver BC two years ago. House prices in Teton County Wyoming, the wealthiest county in the USA, are about 30-40% lower than in Vancouver BC, assuming you could actually find anything 1/2 as nice in Vancouver.

  27. Lena

    I live on Cape Cod (MA) and this was the busiest summer season with the tourists seen in years.

    Can’t figure it out. Though I’m glad they are gone and we have the Cape back to us full timers!

  28. Kat

    I live in a vacation beachtown in Northern CA and its been a busy summer here. I also think our housing prices are at bottom and are starting to slowly come back. We are fortunate because close to Silicon Valley where things have stabilized due to strong tech mkts. We are getting a lot of tech folks buying beach properties. But its not like 2005.
    My sister rents a beachhouse that it used to be we got the week we got, and now there are many choices of when to go.
    We also have vacationed down at a resort in Mexico that has offered deals since 2008, and this year I noticed they are offering their best summer deal during holiday season (so their business has not picked up at all and is probably getting worse). Occupancy there in the summer was 20% this year). They are catering more to rich Mexicans now. People still trying to get their finances in order. There are also a ton of homes for sale and a lot of foreclosures in some of the smaller mountain towns in Northern CA where a lot of people had second homes or were retiring there. People now are working longer and staying put. When Borders closed downtown, we just got a Forever 21 put in, which sells really cheap clothes from China. The store is packed with young people. We are also very fortunate because we have a strong buy local movement so our town has held up pretty well during the financial crisis. The town my father grew up in rural PA and left, bringing us all to CA had a population of 4400 and now is 2800 and houses are sellling for nothing, literally. I imagine many smaller towns in the same shape that arent connected to big cities. No reason to move there with no jobs.

  29. akl

    I live in Portland (ME), but I’ve done a lot of roving around rural New England this summer. Portland itself is absolutely busier this summer than in the past few years, and that is particularly impressive given that the bulk of the year’s cruise ships haven’t even arrived yet (they pushed the season back into September & October this year). In contrast, more rural parts of the region (off of the main transportation corridors) seem rather quieter than I have noticed in recent years.

    Enjoy your time in Maine. Cheers.

  30. chuck roast

    Hi Yves
    The new Superyacht Center in Belfast is apparently doing well, but of course they need to put the tap on the State for $200K for a paint shop. A fundamental that they seemingly forgot when they built the place.
    I drove through Camden (ugh) on Monday – light traffic.
    I bummed a ride from a lobsterman in Stoneington a couple of weeks ago. He is getting $1.69/lb. for his bugs. (more ugh) They are bitching about the failure of Say’s Law and the fact that Canadaien fishermen are guaranteed $3/lb. for lobsters.
    The art market seems to be good.
    The job market is about the national average 14/16% underemployment. But lots of Mainiacs are on Medicare – there is no better option for many of them. And with better-than-average health care access, many are willing to submit to a lifetime of border-line poverty as long as they can get their cigs and coffee brandy.
    There are increasingly two Maines – the guys with leech fields and the guys with sewers.

  31. Elizabeth

    Here in coastal Michigan, I talked to some tourists spending the weekend at our only resort hotel. They said it was one heck of a good value, and that was why they were here instead of flying somewhere more exciting and expensive. In fact, they said they’d be back in February or March to watch the ice float down (!). So there’s a silver lining for us lower-tier tourist traps, I guess. Busmen’s holidays are hot this summer.

  32. Rehabber

    Was down in NOLA and Biloxi pre-Isaac. Bourbon St and the Garden District were humming. It was my first time back since ’07 so a lot of the box stores in the suburbs have been reopened. And a huge amount of construction was taking place downtown – cranes everywhere. The casinos in Biloxi seemed solidly busy.

  33. JEHR

    I live in rural New Brunswick. The capital, Fredericton, is having a building boom. There are many new suburbs being built around the city. The houses are bigger and more expensive and getting more expensive all the time.

    However, between F’ton and where we live (24 kilometres), you can count more than 5 decent houses that have been abandoned, some recently and some longer. We have many small towns being depleted of their young people who are going to Alberta to work in the tar sands. We may have a net loss in population if that keeps up.

    Our total provincial population is only about 750,000 (spread around the whole province) so I think we are doing quite well using our resources to the best of our ability.

    Provincially, we have an honest premier and a very honest minister of finance.

    1. sleepy

      I drove through your province last spring on my way to Newfoundland. I must say it was very scenic on the drive from Houlton ME to Moncton. Some beautiful river gorges right off the TCH that I would like to go back and investigate someday.

  34. Wayne Gersen

    For the past 8 years I’ve spent Labor Day weekend on Lake Memphramagog in NE Vermont. This year the weather was gorgeous but the number of sailboats and high powered motorboats was noticeably down… the quiet was pleasant but it doesn’t seem to bode well for the economy…

  35. Murky

    San Francisco Bay Area resident here. More specifically, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and the Stanford campus. This entire area is upscale, and hardly shows much damage from the current economic recession.

    On the Stanford campus, several large new buildings are being erected in a number of locations. No doubt Stanford has the money to support such expansion. For perspective, in 2009 Stanford laid off 15% of its employees, claiming its endowment had undergone catastrophic shrinkage and forced the layoffs. There was a lot of woe-is-our-budget talk back then. Now things are groovy. The tourists still come to the Stanford campus in bus-loads.

    Two to three years ago in Menlo Park many storefront businesses closed shop, and the real estate stayed vacant for many months. That’s unusual for this locale, but that’s all changed now. Spaces are full and all the boutique shops are coming along nicely.

    In Palo Alto the main street for shops is University avenue, and I can’t see much difference now from 3 years ago. The nearby mall, Stanford Shopping Center, is as high priced and busy as ever.

    As for housing prices, Palo Alto and Menlo Park have kept their value, with continuous high demand for available space. Poorer Bay Area cities are hurting. Vallejo and Fairfield have severely depressed housing prices. Stockton is a good example of complete collapse.

  36. Bill

    Well … for me no vacation, but I do have the good fortune to have a job, which I got within the last few months. At a salary greatly reduced from what I was earning before. Still a job and there is lots to be done. All to the good. So I cannot add to the vacation sampling. I can say that I am thinking a lot about the next/last kid in the line’s college education funding. When that is finished that’ll be a vacation.

  37. Susan Davidson

    My husband and I are retired and take a 3-5 week road trip every year. This year we drove from Texas through New Mexico, Nevada, California and Arizona. My observations were the small towns were still struggling with even restaurants like Denny’s and IHOP only half full. Hotels along the interstate 10 – Hamption, Courtyard, etc seemed to be pretty busy. The South Lake Tahoe area was okay but not as busy as we have seen it in summers past. We went through Napa and it seemed pretty busy. Most of the travelers seemed very affluent. We definately saw many college educated workers in minimum wage jobs. Many of them in California and very upset about the lack of good paying jobs based on our conversations with them. Definately a state of have and have nots.

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