Local officials considering temporary closure of Cloudland Road to stem the tide of foliage photographers
By Tom Ayres, Senior Staff Writer
The impact of social media on tourism, travel photography, and travelers’ choices of places to visit has skyrocketed in recent times, particularly as the travel restrictions of the pandemic years have subsided. The “Instagrammability” of a particular setting has become a leading driver of where and when travelers — particularly those who are members of the so-called millennial and Gen Z generations, born between the years of 1982 and 1994 and 1995 and 2010 respectively — make their travel plans.
Academic and tourist research in the U.S., Europe, and Asia indicates that as much as 90 percent of national and international travelers consult social media during their vacations. In the U.S. and Great Britain, an estimated 40 percent of millennials and Gen Z members pick travel destinations based on how “Instagrammable” their travel photos will be. Here in America, up to 60 percent of tourists post photos on social media while traveling — and among millennials posting on sites such as Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok, that number is believed to soar over 90 percent. Of further note, more than one million travel-related hashtags are searched on Instagram every week.
Nowhere are the impacts of this phenomenon more evident — and more vexing — than in South Pomfret.
The leaf-peeping legions who descend by the hundreds each day on Cloudland and Barber Hill Roads near the Pomfret-Woodstock line each foliage season are driven by the lust for glorious nature photographs and often specially staged and costumed “selfies” in front of what is widely considered the most photographed site in Vermont, if not one of the primary shutterbug destinations in the country:
Sleepy Hollow Farm.
A simple search for “Sleepy Hollow Farm” on Instagram yields hundreds if not thousands of foliage season photographs, many of them taken of colorfully bedecked fashionistas during peak foliage at the fabled Vermont farm. The iconic Vermont setting has long been a go-to spot for professional nature and travel photographers alike, drawing photography aficionados to Pomfret for decades. But it’s the advent of cell phone photography and the explosion of social media sites such as Instagram for posting travel pictures instantaneously that have brought the situation to the current crisis stage for South Pomfret residents.
“Both the number of tourists and the way to market any place has grown exponentially,” laments Cathy Emmons, the co-owner, farmer, and farm-to-table restauranteur at Cloudland Farm in South Pomfret. She is one of the leaders of the residents’ group that is working to stem the tide of foliage season visitors to the rural enclave. “You send out one Instagram post, and now instead of reaching a small number of people, you’re reaching literally hundreds of thousands of people instantaneously. The word spreads instantly around the world. We’re seeing an increasing number of people from foreign countries and perhaps it’s a cultural thing, but they see this area as kind of a public park. It’s not that. It’s private property. Some people here don’t want to leave their homes for the entire foliage season because they just can’t bear it.”
In recent weeks, a group of Cloudland and Barber Hill Road residents most impacted by the photo-hungry tourists has reached out to regional tourism entities and town officials to ask that they not direct leaf-peeping photographers to private properties during the fall foliage season. In concert with public officials, the residents are also seeking ways to temper the social-media-driven frenzy that has drawn thousands of leap-peepers to two narrow, dirt roads in South Pomfret over the past several years.
Meanwhile, selectboards in both Pomfret and Woodstock are looking ahead to this fall and pondering anew how to stem or better control the onslaught of photograph-seeking tourists who snarl the narrow dirt roads around Sleepy Hollow Farm, creating traffic jams that preclude ready access by emergency vehicles, picnicking on private property, flying drones over family gatherings, picking vegetables from household gardens, using private yards as outdoor bathrooms, and a myriad of other transgressions.
“Pomfret welcomes fall foliage visitors but asks them to respect our community so others can enjoy its scenic beauty, too,” Pomfret Selectperson Ben Brickner said in an email last weekend, reiterating his comments in a Monday morning phone conversation. “Increasing traffic has caused safety, environmental, and quality-of-life problems — blocking roads to residents and emergency vehicles, leaving trash and damaging private property, making noise at early and late hours, flying drones over homes, and trespassing through photo shoots on lawns, driving, picnicking, and parking on hay fields, and harassing livestock. Pomfret is working with area residents to address these issues,” Brickner continued.
One solution to the dilemma that has considerable support among area residents is for the governing bodies in both Pomfret and Woodstock to close both Cloudland Road and Barber Hill Road during the foliage season, barring vehicular travel on the rural thoroughfares to everyone except residents. Another idea under consideration is to erect no-parking signs along the entire stretch of both roads, and then enforcing that restriction with tickets and substantial fines. Over the next two months, Brickner said Monday, the Pomfret town governing body will mull these and other options in consultation with the Windsor County Sheriff’s Department and Woodstock officials.
Both Emmons and John Morley, another member of the concerned citizens’ group who lives in a former farmstead on Barber Hill Road near its intersection with Cloudland Road, are quick to point out that they are not by any means opposed to tourists. “I have lived here a long time,” Morley said earlier this week. “I know that tourism is critical. We can’t live without tourists. We have to have them here to make this community work. The sad part is that it’s a tragedy for the people, it’s a tragedy for us, and it’s a tragedy for the community because I don’t think the people who are coming here are getting a true Vermont experience.
“When you think of a tourist destination, you think you’re going to go there and find a place to park, eat, use the restrooms, all of that — and this isn’t that,” Morley continued. “I think people are being misled by the tourism marketing and the bloggers and that’s just sad. It’s just a private, single-family home on a rural dirt road,” the South Pomfret resident, who had a drone buzz three feet over his head while dining with his family in their backyard last fall, added.
Emmons shared her friend Morley’s sentiment while endorsing full closures for Cloudland and Barber Hill Roads this autumn. “That’s the only way to spread the word that this is no longer a public attraction,” she offered. “That’s the way to spread it as fast as possible through the bloggers and the influencers. We’ve already gotten the geotag for Sleepy Hill removed from Google Maps and we’ve got to have the help of the travel bloggers and Instagrammers to get this right.”
Mike Doten, whose family has lived and farmed in South Pomfret for “zillions of years” — some 200 or more — lives directly across Cloudland Road from Sleepy Hollow Farm. And Doten’s parents, Fred and Nancy, live adjacent to the oft-photographed Vermont farm. Last year, Fred and Nancy Doten had a tour bus remove no-parking cones at the end of their driveway, park the bus alongside their house, and empty 50-plus camera-toting tourists onto the couple’s front lawn.
Mike Doten spoke Sunday about the nature of the tourists he’s witnessed visiting his neighborhood over the past 40-plus years. “We’ve seen traffic increase dramatically, but I would say it’s a little bit difficult to parse that out,” Doten offered. “There are the folks who truly want to photograph Sleepy Hollow from a pure photography standpoint and then there are those who I call the TikTok crowd. They’re the ones who show up because they’ve seen Sleepy Hollow on the internet and they’re coming here and literally doing fashion shoots, dressing up for the occasion and having their photos taken against that foliage backdrop. It’s all about the glam shot. We’ve even had women come here and pose in their wedding dresses with Sleepy Hollow as the background.”
Therein lies the longer-range challenge for area residents seeking to demystify Cloudland Road and Sleepy Hollow Farm as a must-see-and-photograph locus.
A New Jersey native who has lived in various parts of Europe and Asia for the past decade, Lauren Siegel is perhaps the world’s leading authority on the impact of Instagram and other social media on tourism and travel — impacts both profoundly deleterious and positive. Siegel, a lecturer in tourism and events in the School of Marketing and Management at the University of Greenwich in London, has written and spoken extensively on what she terms “the behavioral performances and visitor impacts to destinations considered ‘Instagrammable’” for both her Ph.D. dissertation and in ongoing research that she has presented at academic and tourism conferences for the past several years. Siegel spoke with the Standard from her London office Monday afternoon.
“Unfortunately, this is becoming quite a common scenario around the world. I’m not surprised at all,” Siegel said of the Cloudland Road troubles, of which she said she was minimally aware through her connection to the worlds of tourism and travel research. “This is an area that I’ve been researching for the past few years. It’s become super common for really photogenic places that aren’t accustomed to a system of tourism to become popular for people coming just to take their picture. And something I always talk about is how when people are going someplace just to take pictures, they’re not spending any money there, but that place will have to deal with all the ramifications that come with the visitors — increased congestion, litter, trespassing, all of these things — but there’s no benefit to the local community.”
Siegel expressed skepticism that closing the roads around Sleepy Hollow Farm during foliage season will end the annual onslaught of leaf-peeping shutterbugs to the site, given that the Instagram genie is well out of the bottle regarding the photogenic location. She offered several examples of how other locations, both public and private, in Asia and Europe, have dealt with and struggled with over-tourism and excessive visitation driven by Instagram, TikTok, and other viral social media platforms.
City leaders in Kyoto, Japan, for example, have banned travel photography there completely, imposing fines on those people who were found to be taking pictures there without a proper license, which needs to be obtained in advance. “Another strategy that could work in the situation that you’re seeing is what we’re seeing in Bali,” Siegel stated. “There are these gates [at Lempuyang Temple] that people go to for taking pictures to post on Instagram and TikTok. They’ve introduced the concept of selfie tickets — a ticketing system where on the road as you approach the most photogenic spot at the gates, you have to buy a ticket and wait in a queue to actually be able to get anywhere near the site. In Bali, the tickets are not that expensive, but maybe [in Vermont] you could implement a price point that would be appropriate for the amount of work they’d have to do to implement the infrastructure to support the photo shoots.”
Siegel suggested a third strategy that regional tourism authorities, town officials, and local residents could explore collaboratively: strategically reaching out to travel bloggers and Instagram influencers to seek their support in getting the word out that Sleepy Hollow site is a private home, not a public park or gathering place, and that the rural setting does not have the infrastructure in terms of parking, restrooms, and dining facilities to accommodate the sizable crowds of people who come to the area during foliage season.
The social media and tourism researcher went on to discuss a decidedly rural setting in the North Atlantic — the Faroe Islands, an autonomous territory of the Kingdom of Denmark. “The Faroes had not received a large amount of tourists until the Instagram phenomenon became really popular. They are very remote isles with very picturesque houses dotted throughout farmlands. People are going there and taking pictures and climbing on the houses. It has gotten to the point where a farmer has to look out his window before he uses the toilet or shower because there’s always someone hopping around and peering in looking to take pictures of the inside of the house. It’s very similar to what you’ve described about Sleepy Hollow.”
To date, Siegel said, Danish and Faroe Islands authorities have not yet found a solution to the problem of these particularly invasive and insensitive seekers of the perfect “Instagrammable” time and place. Between now and the end of the summer, Pomfret town leader Brickner said Monday, local officials will work with their counterparts in Woodstock and Cloudland Road area residents to resolve the community’s own frustrations with rural interlopers seeking the best of all fall foliage photos to share with hundreds of thousands of other people instantaneously on social media of all types.
“They see this area as kind of a public park. It’s not that. It’s private property. Some people here don’t want to leave their homes for the entire foliage season because they just can’t bear it.” — Cathy Emmons
Officials seek help from tourism authorities
Town leaders and residents of Pomfret have written to local tourism and hospitality industry officials to solicit their support for efforts to stem the flow of photograph-snapping leaf-peepers and snappily-dressed fashion fans, particularly to the Cloudland Road, Barber Hill Road, and Sleepy Hollow Farm vicinities during peak foliage season each fall.
Pomfret Selectboard Chair John Peters Jr., writing on behalf of South Pomfret residents who’ve brought their concerns about the invasion of their properties by overzealous photographers and tourists each fall to local officials, signed a letter dated June 7 to Woodstock officials, the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce, and area inns, hotels, and hospitality providers, asking them to assist in returning a measure of sanity to the area surrounding Sleepy Hollow Farm — the most photographed location in Vermont — during the coming fall’s foliage season.
“We are a small community with mostly unpaved gravel roads, families that still farm the land, and a small number of employees and volunteers who care for the needs of our town,” Peters wrote. “With the advent of internet marketing, social media, and influencers, word of our picturesque, rural town of Pomfret has spread far and wide. Private homes have been tagged as ‘tourist attractions’ despite having no facilities to accommodate parking or other needs of the influx of visitors.
“The result has been hundreds of vehicles with thousands of tourists parking on our gravel roadsides to take photos, making roads impassable, and creating safety concerns for emergency vehicles that cannot access residents. It has also resulted in trash being left on our roadsides and visitors walking, picnicking, and disturbing livestock on private properties in these neighborhoods,” Peters’ letter continued.
“To help address these issues, we ask that you not promote Sleepy Hollow Farm on Cloudland Road or other private properties for tourists to visit or photograph,” the letter added. “We also ask that you remind visitors to respect our community so that others may also enjoy its scenic beauty.”
“Fall foliage has been a costly and time-consuming issue for Pomfret,” Peters concluded. “There are many nearby tourist attractions that are open to the public and have facilities and parking areas to accommodate them. We encourage you to promote places like these instead.
Ironically, within several days of the Pomfret Selectboard’s letter being sent to local tourism entities, the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce, as part of a marketing campaign it is running in collaboration with the town’s Economic Development Commission (EDC), posted a photo of Sleepy Hollow Farm on social media sites, touting the farm as a tourist destination, especially for those seeking a photogenic setting in the Upper Valley in the fall. As might be expected, the posting engendered criticism of the marketing campaign during the public comment sessions at the two most recent regular meetings of the Town of Woodstock and Pomfret Selectboards. To a one, Woodstock Selectboard members said they sympathized with the plight of Cloudland Road area residents and would act to not only stem marketing efforts directing visitors to Cloudland Road but also collaborate with Pomfret officials this coming foliage season to implement traffic restrictions or other means of diminishing the number of tourists traveling to South Pomfret’s most scenic vista each autumn.
Responding to resident concerns in an email last Friday, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Beth Finlayson and Woodstock EDC Chair Jon Spector wrote, “Thank you for your letters and emails expressing concerns about the number of visitors to Pomfret and to your private properties, and the behavior of some of those visitors once they arrive. Our two organizations — the Woodstock Economic Development Commission and the Woodstock Chamber of Commerce — jointly oversee the efforts to market Woodstock as a destination for visitors. Your request that we not promote private properties is understandable, and we have commenced an effort to scrub our website and our Instagram account of any past mentions of the names or locations of private properties or roads on which these private properties are located.
“We will also publish a blog entry and a website message explaining the concerns and reminding readers of the need to respect private property and the privacy of local residents. We discussed whether publishing a special blog entry would make the problem worse, but we think we can do so in a way that does not mention any specific properties or locations. Going forward, our policy will be not to mention specific private properties or their locations without explicit permission from the private property owner,” the pair of tourism officials continued.
“We believe we can do most of the above very quickly — some of the changes will be implemented today, and others should be completed within a week. While we will do our best to search for prior content online, if you identify specific prior content on our website or in our social media accounts that mentions private properties by name or location, please let us know,” the missive from Finlayson and Spector concluded.