By Mark Okrant
NH Travel Guru
Many people have an opinion about how the Northern Pass Transmission Project may impact the state’s tourism industry. Having spent more than a quarter of a century coordinating research for the New Hampshire Division of Travel and Tourism Development, one might say I’m familiar with travel behaviors. Rather than choose sides in this controversy, I hope to use my experience to enhance the reader’s ability to frame an informed opinion.
One thing this column will not do is criticize the capability of Mitch Nichols, a credible researcher who recently concluded the Project will have no measurable impact on the state’s tourism industry. I do agree with Mr. Nichols that there has been a dearth of research on the impact of similar construction projects upon short- or long-term travel behaviors, but am not prepared to support his conclusion.
As we proceed with this exercise, I ask you to consider your perspective of the two following hypotheses:
- Northern Pass is good for the welfare of our fellow citizens in southern New England (yes – maybe – no); and,
- A certain number (0 – 100+) of failed businesses in the name of progress is acceptable.
New Hampshire’s tourism industry is unlike those in Florida, the Caribbean, and other popular travel destinations. Mom and pop businesses are the heart and soul of this state’s tourism industry. Also, if I’ve learned anything during the last three decades, it is that leisure travel behavior is the product of two memes (i.e., behaviors passed from one relative, friend, or social media contact to another). Please keep these in mind as we proceed.
Meme #1: Leisure travelers are creatures of habit. Many return to places because of the feelings of nostalgia, excitement, beauty, etc. that these settings engender. The experience can be like a narcotic. You’ll hear long-time visitors express sentiments similar to this: “Ever since I was eleven, my entire mind and body relaxes every time I see those mountains.”
Put yourself in the aforementioned illusory visitor’s position. Now, imagine that favorite view has been altered—by addition of a commercial building or, yes, a power line. Will you:
- continue to spend your vacation in the same area, or
- immediately search for a replacement setting?
To be candid, researchers don’t have reliable measures of this. The decrease in visitation could be very low (<1 percent), or substantially higher (e.g., 10 percent or more). It’s safe to say that each circumstance will be distinctive.
The closest comparison (okay, it’s a stretch) I can offer comes from a study we did for the Old Man of the Mountain Legacy Fund. Following the fall of the state’s leading icon, the Institute for New Hampshire Studies found that traffic through Franconia Notch (not to mention the obvious number of viewers) diminished dramatically over several years.
Meme #2: Tourism businesses survive by maintaining a healthy (est. 75 : 25) balance between regular/returning customers versus new ones. Why is this important? As any owner or general manager will tell you, the cost of retaining existing customers is significantly lower than the price of attracting new ones. This is a matter of common sense.
As you consider all of the arguments for or against Northern Pass, please find your own answers to the following questions:
- given the precarious balance between income and expenditures, how great would the loss of current customers need to be for a tourism-related business to close its doors (25%, 10%, 5%, 1%)?
- how great of a change in your favorite vacation destination (i.e., altered landscape, loss of available services, etc.) must occur to cause you to alter your own leisure travel plans?
This column has been designed to assist you in formulating your own opinion about the potential impact of the Northern Pass Transmission Project upon the tourism industry within potentially affected areas. InDepthNH.org and other news outlets have provided a substantial amount of coverage of this issue. You owe it to yourselves to peruse these resources, then revisit this little exercise before arriving at a decision.
After forty years as an educator, researcher, and consultant, Mark Okrant joins InDepthNH.org to offer concise, informative insight into New Hampshire’s travel and tourism industry as a business, while showcasing the people and places you want to know. This guy’s really been around. And, he’s funny, too.
For more about Mark’s compelling tourism-based murder mystery series, visit www.markokrant.com.
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