Even with gasoline prices at near-record levels, Marylanders are expected to travel during Memorial Day weekend in the same robust numbers as last year, AAA Mid-Atlantic predicts.
But to make sure potential visitors aren't discouraged by the price at the pumps, some Ocean City hotels are offering vouchers good for up to $50 in gas for guests who book for multiple days.
Judging by its forecast Tuesday, AAA doesn't think Marylanders will need much of a push to get on the road.
AAA predicts that 719,400 Marylanders will go on vacation this holiday weekend, roughly the same number as last Memorial Day.
Of those expected to travel 50 miles or more, 644,000 people will be on the road, a decline of 0.7 percent, attributed largely to gasoline prices. AAA noted Tuesday's average price of $3.88 per gallon for regular unleaded gasoline in the region, down from this year's peak of $4.04 on May 12.
Ocean City Mayor Richard W. Meehan said the resort has seen a big increase in advance bookings for this weekend and throughout the summer, encouraging him to expect a record number of visitors this year.
"All indications are that it is going to be a great success," he said. Meehan said the resort's message this year is: "Don't let the gas prices get you down. Fight back."
Air travel was expected to increase by 11 percent, with 60,800 Marylanders expected to fly.
About 500 fewer Marylanders were expected to travel this year than last. Nearly 90 percent of Maryland's holiday travelers will go by car, 8.5 percent will fly and the rest will use rail and bus, AAA said.
AAA issued its summer travel forecast at its customary location on Kent Island, with the Bay Bridge as a backdrop.
The group's prediction of brisk summer travel hinges largely on its expectation that gas prices will continue to decline after coming within a penny of the June 2008 record earlier this month. Barring a new crisis, AAA is forecasting that prices will ease to $3.25 to $3.75 for most of the summer and said the recovering economy is apparently having more of an impact on travel decisions than the price of gasoline.
"It would be fair to say we expect hordes of travelers to be coming across this beautiful span behind us," said Mahlon G. "Lon" Anderson, AAA Mid-Atlantic's chief spokesman.
Anderson said the survey on which AAA based its forecasts was conducted April 19 to 23, when gas prices were soaring. With prices now dropping, he said, the forecast could be low.
"It wouldn't surprise us a bit if those numbers are low-ball as far as what actually happens," he said.
According to AAA, Marylanders are expected to spend slightly less on travel this holiday weekend — $813 compared with $826 in 2010.
Meehan said Ocean City typically does well even when gas prices are high because it is close to three major population centers: Baltimore, Washington and Philadelphia. In addition, he said, the resort has increased its advertising to the north and is seeing a surge in visits.
"More and more and more we're seeing license plates from New Jersey and New York," the mayor said.
About 10 Ocean City hotels are seeking to make sure visitors show by offering, in effect, to pay roughly the cost of a tank of gas for visitors who book for enough days.
Susan Jones, executive director of the Ocean City Maryland Hotel, Motel and Restaurant Association, said fuel-related promotions weren't on her group's agenda until local retailer Joe Kro-Art started to promote the idea of free gas for visitors in the media.
"He wanted to get people talking about Ocean City," Jones said.
In recent days, she said, more hotels have decided to advertise promotional gas cards on the Ocean City website — including the Hotel Monte Carlo, the Grand Hotel and the Bedtime Inn.
Such vouchers were widely offered in 2008 as gas prices were building toward a record statewide average of $4.05 that June. Since them, Ocean City has launched a variety of promotions to lure visitors to the beach — many under the banner of "Rodney Saves."
"Rodney," a fictional lifeguard character who has become Ocean City's version of Ronald McDonald, has branched out into the Rodney's Roadside Assistance business.
Jones indicated that many in the hotel industry were not sure that fuel-related promotions were necessary because getting to Ocean City doesn't require that much gas.
"We have historically always had a decent amount of business when the prices are higher," she said. "It's bigger in some people's minds than it is in others'."
One of the most generous gas discounts is being offered at the Clarion Fontainebleau Hotel, which has advertised a $50 card for stays of three nights or more.
Mark Elman, the hotel's general manager, said the Clarion offered the promotion in 2008 and 2009 but dropped it in 2010, when gas prices were about $1 less per gallon than they are now. He said the promotion seems to be having the intended effect.
"We've gotten some inquiries and we've gotten some bookings, and it seems to be working," he said.
Promotion or not, the trip to Ocean City takes travelers through some of the best territory in Maryland for filling up. AAA Maryland spokeswoman Ragina Averella noted that Salisbury — on the road to the beach — has "the cheapest gas in the state" at about $3.72 a gallon.
As the resort's boosters looked for ways to keep the beach less expensive, police were making plans to keep the trip safe.
Maj. A.J. McAndrew said the state police will beef up patrols on Maryland highways during the holiday weekend, concentrating on such violations as aggressive driving, speeding and drunken driving.
Lt. Joseph Scott of the Maryland Transportation Authority Police urged motorists whose cars become disabled on the Bay Bridge or other toll facilities to call for help and wait for a rescue vehicle. Even if a driver has no cell phone, authorities will quickly learn of a breakdown from traffic cameras or other motorists, he said.
"I emphasize to stay in your vehicle if anything like that takes place," Scott said.
On April 18, Kent Island resident Harry Blauvelt, 70, was killed on the Bay Bridge when a truck hit his Honda Accord, pushed it into the retired golf writer — who had left his car after it broke down in the only open eastbound travel lane — and threw him off the eastbound span.