By Daniel Axelrod The Times Herald-Record, Middletown, N.Y.
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) In Sullivan County, residents have written a new tourism narrative. Out with the borscht belt resorts and boarding houses; in with the quaint and quirky, nature and nonconformists, fishing, foraging and farms.
The Times Herald-Record, Middletown, N.Y.
Three years. Four inns. Two kids. My, how things have changed for Sims and Kirsten Foster.
Since 2014, the husband and wife team has opened four small Sullivan County hotels, with business booming, and birthed babies.
Both left lucrative careers in New York City -- him as a vice president for an international hotel management company, her as an economist with the Federal Reserve -- to open their inns.
But as much as the two early 40-somethings' lives have changed, Sullivan County's tourism market has transformed even more since its dark days in the 1990s.
Sullivan County's visitor spending skyrocketed 37 percent to $419.2 million in 2016 from $388.3 million in 2015, according to a newly released report from the Oxford Economics company, which tracks New York tourism.
"Growing up, when I heard New York City residents, they were like: 'Oh, I'm from the city and you're country folk,' and there was this 'us and them' attitude," said Sims Foster, a Livingston Manor native. "Now, everyone wants to be from the country. Nothing makes our guests happier than to be confused with full-time locals."
Hoteliers, restaurateurs and entrepreneurs like the Fosters are part of why Sullivan County's tourism is growing, said Roberta Byron-Lockwood, president and CEO of the Sullivan Catskills tourism bureau.
They're conjuring dreams of mountains and streams, rendering the Catskills as a hip, laid-back alternative to big city hustle and bustle, promoting trails over traffic to the Hamptons.
"The Catskills are the new Hamptons," Byron-Lockwood said. "That's how travel agencies and the public are discussing us."
Elsewhere locally, tourism revenues also rose, but less dramatically. Orange County's visitor spending grew 3.6 percent to $474.7 million in 2016 from $457.9 million in 2015, and Ulster County saw a 6 percent increase to $554.1 million from $532.7 million.
Between the beers, bands, biking, hiking, fishing and artsy activities, it's no secret why local visitor spending is up, said Orange County Tourism Director Susan Hawvermale.
"We have such a wide variety of attractions," Hawvermale said. "If you want the craft beverage trail, you can go to wineries, cideries and breweries. If you want history, we have so much of it, and if you want arts and culture, there are just so many places to go."
In Sullivan County, Sims Foster and Byron-Lockwood said residents have written a new tourism narrative. Out with the borscht belt resorts and boarding houses; in with the quaint and quirky, nature and nonconformists, fishing, foraging and farms.
Combined, the Fosters' four properties have 47 rooms. But each inn has no more than 14 rooms, and they represent different sides of Sullivan County.
The North Branch Inn is about relaxation and romance near old orchard land, with a small, ever-changing menu of hyper-local fare, veggie and herb gardens, craft ciders on tap, and lilacs, hydrangea and rhododendron galore.
Callicoon's 9 River Road inn, along the Delaware River, is about losing one's self in smalltown life along the river.
The Arnold House in Livingston Manor sates guests in a lively tavern full of pub food, and loud musical acts play in a big barn.
Eight miles east, the Fosters' newest inn, the nine-week-old DeBruce, is about fine dining with 10-course meals, hiking and fishing in the Willowemoc Creek.
"What's amazing to me is watching the area struggle for so long and trying to find its identity," Sims Foster said of Sullivan County. "Hope was lost by a generation" longing for tourism dollars, he added. But now those welcoming the Catskills' visitors are "focusing on the natural gifts of our area and communicating that story to our guests. And that's why we've been filling our rooms."