Tourists Love To Love the Hudson Valley
By Anne Pyburn Craig
Unless you live at the end of a dead-end road and do all your business online, you’ve probably noticed that our part of the world gets more visitors every year. Even if you do live at the end of that dead end road, it’s likely that one of these days some confused hikers will wander into your yard to ask for help reading their map. (“But we thought we’d end up right back on the rail trail!”)
People love beautiful scenery, fine food, art and community celebrations, and the Hudson Valley and Catskills stand out in all of those categories. And being so near the largest city in the U.S. and its associated metro area (20.2 million human occupants and a gross metropolitan product of nearly $1.6 trillion in 2015, not to mention eight of the 10 highest-priced zip codes in the country according to Forbes) makes a lot of company pretty much inevitable.
“I’ve been doing this for over 25 years,” says Susan Hawvermale, director of tourism for Orange County and the point person for the Hudson Valley Travel section of I Love New York, the state’s tourism campaign. “It’s been a steady increase, which is good news; there was a brief blip during the subprime mortgage debacle, but aside from that the numbers have been going up very nicely that whole time.”
In 2012, according to a study by Mid-Hudson Pattern for Progress, visitors to the Hudson Valley pumped $3.1 billion into the economy of the valley as a whole, and accounted for 6.4 percent of all employment. In 2015, according to a state-funded study by Tourism Economics, it was $3.4 billion, and supported over 55,000 jobs. Of that $3.4 billion, 28 percent was spent on food and beverages.
Being at the epicenter of a local food scene with tentacles embedded into the metro region’s vast appetite, and being home base for the Culinary Institute of America, whose graduates are as prone as anyone else to fall in love with the valley’s culture and scenery, hasn’t hurt. But Hawvermale says it’s the adult beverage scene that’s really exploded. “The craft beverage scene has practically taken over. Hard cider has become a drink of choice for many, and we’re at the center. There’s a whole craft beverage map showing wineries, distilleries, breweries, cideries… the scene is huge with millennials. You could be at a trade show in Manhattan and people have heard of Newburgh Brewery. It helped a lot when the governor signed the law allowing sales at farm distilleries. Now, the motto is, ‘If we can grow it in New York, we can make it into alcohol.’ And you get these very creative set ups, like the Angry Orchard Innovation Cider House in Walden. It’s spectacular; it’s where they develop the new flavors, smack in the middle of the orchards, and they’ve got an interactive museum and a beautiful view of the Shawangunks from the tasting room.” All in all there are over 100 craft beverage producers welcoming visitors in the Hudson Valley, from centuries-old wineries to newborn distilleries and a “meadery.”
Besides the craft beverage boom, Hawvermale is excited about the new flights being inaugurated by Norwegian Air to Stewart Airport in Newburgh. Currently, flights are available to and from Ireland and Scotland; the airline hopes to add Norway and France. “It’s really expanded our horizons,” she says. “So many have visited New York City, and the Hudson Valley is a perfect follow-up trip, like ‘Okay, I’ve seen Paris, now I want to see Provence. It’s not a big stretch; getting up here is easy, with or without a car, and then you can rent a car to get around.” (Uber and Lyft have just announced brand new service in Kingston.)
Hoping to fill those airline seats consistently, tourism directors from around the region have been joining forces to host familiarization tours for travel professionals from other countries. “We just got done hosting officials from Norwegian Air and Barrhead Travel, the premiere travel agency in the UK, who came to see what we have to offer in Ulster, Dutchess, Sullivan, and Orange,” says Ulster County tourism director Rick Remsnyder. “We took them to Uptown Kingston and on a two hour cruise on the Rip Van Winkle—they absolutely loved it. They said they saw a lot of potential for bringing people over here. I’m confident that those seats will be full.” Included in the tour: a lighthouse stop, locally produced beverages, and—of course—a meal of locally grown food prepared by a CIA-trained chef.
In Ulster County alone, tourism generated $534 million in 2015 (tourist dollars are measured not just by direct impact, such as motel and restaurant receipts, but by indirect impact on those who supply the tourist operations and “induced” impact created when people employed in tourism spend their wages locally; across the Hudson Valley, people made $1.1 billion serving tourists’ direct needs and $1.9 billion when the other impacts are figured in.) And as the people and their dollars keep rolling in in waves, the region has kept pace with their needs in any number of ways… There are six new lodging establishments in Orange County, including a Hampton by Hilton in Newburgh that Hawvermale describes as “state of the art.” To the north and west, the Catskills have a wide and wild variety of relatively new boutique lodging options.
Classic nonprofit tourist attractions that locals remember from countless school field trips have re-imagined themselves in new ways, and everyone wins including the new generation of field-trippers. “It never ceases to amaze me how people reinvent themselves and attract return visitors,” says Hawvermale. “The Roosevelt places in Hyde Park, for example, are constantly refreshing their exhibits and programming.”
“Historic Huguenot Street, with Mary Etta Schneider chairing the board, is open a lot more and they’ve been doing a lot more reenactments and new activities,” says Remsnyder. “And they’re one of a number of places that have done a lot to attract visitors.” Agritourism, too, has a fresh look, with farmstays, “farmer for a day” packages, customizable wedding barns and on-farm dinners supplanting the humble corn mazes of yesteryear. (According to research from Glynwood Farm, in Cold Spring, over 60 percent of Hudson Valley agritourism happens on ecologically managed land.)
The two sides of the Hudson Valley have become an increasingly unified tourism and recreation draw ever since the opening of the majestic and immensely popular Walkway Over The Hudson between the Dutchess County City of Poughkeepsie and Ulster County community of Highland in 2009. Reports commissioned by the nonprofit Walkway’s board of directors have pointed out that over $24 million has been generated by visitations to the former 1888 railway bridge, with nearly half of that money coming from tourists attracted from outside the region. More importantly, the Walkway has become not only a site for regional events, but is also the keystone to a fast-growing region-wide system of rail trails that’s spurred the state to push its own comprehensive mix of trails from New York City to its farthest reaches on the Canadian border and Lakes Erie and Ontario.
All of this busy-ness isn’t happening in a vacuum, of course; the influx of second-home buyers has created a painful gap between local incomes and rising housing costs. Hawvermale is optimistic about Legoland’s proposed theme park in Orange County, while quite a few neighbors of the site believe it to be out of scale and ill-conceived. It’s indisputable that traffic over Rt. 44/55 on a summer weekend, say, has gotten less manageable and that swimming hole trash is a tragic side effect of a vast influx of people who probably assume someone’s being paid to pick up after them. Indisputably, though, our guests are boosting the economy less harmfully than heavy industry would, even were there any moving in.
And regardless of anyone’s opinion, the magnetism that keeps ‘em coming has existed throughout written history and isn’t about to quit. “We’re so blessed in every direction,” says Remsnyder. “And we’ve gotten really good at this. We know how to do tourism.”