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Downtown Asheville Enjoys Peak Tourism Traffic

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10/22/2012 - Downtown Asheville Enjoys Peak Tourism Traffic
by Casey Blake - Asheville Citizen Times

ASHEVILLE -- Harold and Leslie Jenner may have been the best unofficial indicator that tourism season in the mountains was at fall peak this weekend.

Between the two of them they were toting about a half dozen shopping bags, two point-and-shoot cameras, a sack of lunch leftovers and not one but three fanny packs -- because one each just wasn't enough for a weekend like this.

"We tried to fit everything into two, but this is a big shopping weekend for us, so we had some real stuff to carry," said Leslie Jenner, of Bryson City, who joined her husband Harold for their annual October trek to Asheville.

"We always stay a couple nights, drive around and look at leaves and buy gifts at the Craft Fair," Leslie Jenner said. "We always think we'll just window shop at stores downtown but then we end up bag shopping, so there's no room for purses here on these arms."

Downtown businesses felt the fanny pack economic indicators in a big way this weekend, with leaf-peeping season in full swing and big tourist events, including the fall edition of the Craft Fair of the Southern Highlands and the annual Hard Lox festival, drawing shoppers downtown.

Lauren Napoli, a book seller with Malaprops bookstore downtown, said the weekend of the Craft Fair is usually one of the busiest the shop, located just up the street from the fair's U.S. Cellular Center home, sees all year.

"Historically, this is one of the best weekends we have all year as far as sales go, just behind Christmas weekend," Napoli said.

&ldq uo;We don't necessarily have way more people coming in, but they just seem to spend more. People just really come ready to shop."

Laila Boggs, shop and events coordinator for the Asheville Art Museum, said the gift shop and museum have seen record ticket sales, in part because of the museum's recent expansion and because of increased foot traffic from the Hard Lox Jewish Food and Heritage Festival, just outside the museum on Pack Square.

"Our ticket sales are up by about 400 percent from this time last year," Boggs said, "so we've seen a drastic increase from what was already a very busy weekend for us."

Boggs said shop sales were also up, by about 20 percent. "The festival has definitely helped us quite a bit."

Downtown hotels also felt the October uptick, with many reporting full occupancy. The Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority reported recently that hotel sales for the 2011-12 fiscal year were 9.2 percent above the previous year, although representatives of the TDA did not return calls for comment Sunday on occupancy rates so far this fall.

Gray Line Trolley Tours manager and tour guide Matt Wilson said the weekend kept the downtown trolleys at full steam with especially high ticket sales Friday and Saturday, and somewhat lower sales Sunday afternoon.

"October is always our very best month, with lots of out-of-towners," Wilson said. "With people wanting to look at leaves, it stays busy for pretty much the whole month, but especially when there are events folks are coming into town for."

Slightly out of the festival foot-traffic fray, Carmel's restaurant in the Grove Arcade also saw an increase in what is traditionally a very busy weekend for downtown restaurants, up from last year.

"It's actually been a record weekend for us -- we've been extremely busy all weekend," Carmel's co-owner Carole Bowers said.

"Octobers are almost always fantastic for us, but we've seen about a 15 percent bump from this weekend last year," Bowers said of the eatery, which filled its outdoor seating area almost all afternoon Saturday and Sunday.

"I think it's a combination of the great weather, the location close enough to all the festivals and shopping traffic and people just knowing our overall quality of food and service."

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