Potomac News Online | Gas prices probably won’t drive off tourists
High gas prices or not, state tourist destinations are looking for a good summer this year.
And that’s not just preseason optimism talking.
Historically, Virginia has done well in years when tourists decide to stay closer to home because so many people live within driving distance, tourism officials say. Alexandria and Virginia Beach are among destinations that report strong numbers so far this year.
Gas prices take toll on area businesses
Gas prices probably won’t drive off tourists
High gas prices likely to last through 2006
The only thing that would really hurt visitation would be gas shortages, said John Gillespie, vice president of marketing for the three Anheuser-Busch properties in Williamsburg: Busch Gardens, Water Country USA and Kingsmill Resort and Spa.
High gas prices, he said, have “a net-net impact.” The parks will get some new visitors that probably would have driven a little farther if gas prices weren’t so high. But other potential visitors in more distant markets may decide not to come. All in all, it balances out.
Research indicates that people adjust their budgets to compensate for the increase in transportation cost, he said. “If the gas price is up, that’s another $20 in gas, they’ll say ‘I’ll just get a cheaper hotel,’ or maybe we won’t eat exquisite cuisine.”
The effect might be different if gas prices soared to $3 or $3.50 per gallon, but “what we’re having right now doesn’t seem to be pushing back in the research or the travel trends,” Gillespie said.
Last year, Williamsburg has its lowest hotel occupancy in history – 49 percent, according to the Williamsburg Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Gas prices last year certainly didn’t help any,” said David J. Schulte, its executive director.
This year’s figures should be driven higher by a $3.5 million ad campaign called Go Williamsburg. For the first time in several years, the destination has an umbrella campaign to promote the region as a whole.
At AAA MidAtlantic, Martha Mitchell noted that last summer’s high gas prices had “everybody talking about changing daily behavior, but they weren’t really changing that much, and they weren’t changing their vacation plans.
“This year, we’re finding that people are trying to change their day-to-day habits by combining errands, driving their most fuel-efficient car and making sure that their car is tuned up. To date, we have not seen any surveys that say people are changing their vacation plans.”
Mitchell has tallied how much extra an average family has to spend on gasoline, based on federal statistics that say an average family drives 22,000 miles a year in cars that average 20 miles per gallon.
If gasoline is 44 cents higher this year than last, as it was on Thursday, then that family would spend $484 more on gas during the entire year. But a trip to Washington would cost only $5 more; a trip to Nags Head, N.C., would cost only $8 more; and a trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C., would cost only $15 more.
“To save $484 in a year, you might do some serious changes in your habits, but for $15, you’re not going to stay home from your summer week at the beach,” she said.
At Virginia Beach, indications so far are good, said Pamela Lingle at the Convention and Visitors Bureau. Inquiries have increased more than a third over last year, and Web site visits are up 38 percent.
Last year’s figures won’t be available until May, but they’re expected to be slightly up over 2003, Lingle said. That’s especially good, because 2004 was a very wet summer and 2003 a banner year.
Alisa L. Bailey, president of Virginia Tourism Corp., noted that Virginia gets a high percentage of travelers who are taking short trips for long weekends, and they’re unlikely to be affected by a few extra dollars for gas.
“Since 9/11, the American public highly values . . . their own vacation leisure time,” Bailey said. “Rather than it being something, such as 25 years ago, it was buy a new washer or go on vacation, the public feels it’s their right to travel and they need it for emotional well-being. They put a higher value on vacations.”
Contact Katherine Calos at (804) 649-6433 or [email protected]