By Zach Howard
SHELBURNE FALLS, Mass (Reuters) - Sell-out crowds of autumn tourists are flocking to the flame-colored hills of New England to view the foliage, quashing fears that tourism would suffer because of last summer's Tropical Storm Irene.
Just seven weeks ago, the storm shut down miles of state roads and closed 193 bridges in Vermont alone, but nearly all of them have been repaired and reopened in time for the annual brilliance of scarlet, orange and yellow.
During the weekend tour companies reported full buses of tourists and store owners were thrilled to see souvenir buyers lining up at the cash register.
In Massachusetts, where the rain-swollen Deerfield River flooded downtown streets and buildings and forced evacuations in Shelburne Falls, Jacinta Hunting isn't sure whether most tourists are coming back to view the autumn leaves or if they're just curious about the storm damage that captured headlines around the world.
"This weekend has been right on par with last year at this time, but it feels like the peak hasn't hit yet," Hunting said at the sweet shop where she works.
Some 3.3 million people are expected to visit Massachusetts during the foliage season, loosely defined as the month of October and spend an estimated $1.3 billion, said Betsy Wall, director of the Massachusetts Travel & Tourism Office.
"Experts' observations that foliage may be peaking a little late this year -- about a week late -- may be true," she said. "But it should be no less spectacular."
Peak foliage hues are forecast until about October 24 when vistas again will start to fade in much of inland Massachusetts.
Further north in southern Vermont the state quickly mobilized comprehensive road and bridge repairs and launched a marketing campaign to lure visitors back for the fall.
"We were very concerned at the end of September that our message was not getting heard that roads were reopened and we were ready for business," said Megan Smith, commissioner of the Department of Tourism and Marketing.
"But October has proved to just be extremely busy," she said.
Vermont draws about 3.6 million visitors generating $332 million in spending between September and November, said the Vermont tourism office's operations chief, Greg Gerdel.
Experts say the most brilliant fall foliage changes occur when the days start to shorten but the weather often stays pleasant.
For the best so-called "Indian summer" colors, trees need plenty of rain and lots of sunshine during spring and summer.
(Reporting by Zach Howard; Editing by Barbara Goldberg and Jerry Norton)