Tourism forecast sunny despite gasoline prices


Ken Wishnick can practically see summer heading his way. He's been watching it right outside his office window overlooking a Garrett County ski slope.

Regardless of what the calendar says, Wishnick will mark the season when the last clump of snow finally gives way to the inevitable - right on cue for the Memorial Day weekend.

"There's that one last little patch of white out there, and I figure with temperatures in the 70s, this is it," says Wishnick, president of the county Chamber of Commerce. "As far as I'm concerned, this is the unofficial start of summer."

In every corner of Maryland, the sentiment is the same: It's time to hit the road.

Even with gasoline prices averaging $1.71 a gallon - 20 cents more than last year and a penny less than the state's all-time high a week ago - hardly anyone seems worried that rising fuel costs will slow the annual weekend trek to beach, bay and mountain resort destinations and every place in between.

Paul Stock, who has spent nearly 40 years renting out beach chairs and umbrellas in Ocean City, lived through the gas crises of the 1970s and figures to get through this one. Like many others along the 10-mile strand of sand, all his business needs is plenty of sun and plenty of heat.

"We never take our eyes off the Weather Channel," Stock says. "If they're predicting bad weather early in the week, then our Memorial weekend will be off. It's just about that simple all summer."

The weekend forecast doesn't look promising. The National Weather Service is calling for cloudy skies, a chance of rain and temperatures in the mid-60s tomorrow and Sunday across much of the state, then partly cloudy skies and temperatures near 70 Monday. In the mountains, skies are expected to be cloudy and temperatures in the 60s through the Monday holiday.

According to AAA Mid-Atlantic, more than a half-million Marylanders will be driving this weekend, slightly more than last year. Nationwide, 28 1/2 million are expected to clog highways.

Transportation officials are predicting a 3 percent to 5 percent increase over last year's holiday weekend in the number of cars heading through the Fort McHenry Tunnel or over the Bay Bridge.

If anything, merchants around the state who depend on the tourist trade say travel costs and uncertainty about a slowing U.S. economy will bring them more business this summer. The experts agree.

"You'd think it would have a significant negative impact, but it's just the opposite," says Anirban Basu, director of Towson University's Regional Economic Studies Institute. "Most of the downsizing in the economy has already taken place, and consumers sense that," Basu says.

Beach boosters and business owners say every little jump at the fuel pump only increases their optimism. They're expecting more than 3 million tourists this summer who will bring in perhaps $1.5 billion to the local economy starting today.

"We don't see gas prices making a difference, given our proximity," says Donna Abbott, a spokeswoman for Ocean City's tourism office. "Baltimore is 136 miles away, Washington 149. This is about location, location, location."

Beach officials say Ocean City's $1-a-day bus service, used by 3.6 million people last summer, offers price-conscious motorists a chance to park their cars and save once they arrive. This year's catchphrase in the ocean resort is: "We're half-a-tank away."

In Western Maryland, the refrain might be "half-a-tank without the traffic jams."

Tourism accounts for $175 million annually in Garrett County, nearly 40 percent of it during the summer, and Fred Fulk, who runs the 11-room Haley Farm Bed and Breakfast in Oakland, is hoping sluggish bookings will pick up.

"This weekend is going to be really busy, but we were down about $1,000 in April compared to last year," Fulk says. "It seemed to have an impact this spring, but our biggest business is July through October."

On the Eastern Shore, Kimberly Furman, who owns the Hambleton Inn Bed and Breakfast in St. Michaels, says the town's upscale ambiance makes it a destination for day-trippers or for those interested in a quiet weekend.

"Primarily, we draw people from a three-hour drive away, and that's not going to change with gas prices," Furman says.

Across the town harbor, Wayne Bridges, manager of the Crab Claw in St. Michaels, isn't concerned about gasoline prices. It's crabs that worry him - how many there will be this summer and how much they'll cost.

On the heels of last year's meager crab harvest, the worst since 1983, Bridges is paying $90 to $140 a bushel for crabs - when he can get them. Diners at the restaurant are paying $54 a dozen for jumbo crabs.

Still, Bridges thinks things will improve in a few weeks when watermen begin catching hard crabs in the nearby Miles and Wye rivers. A look out onto the town's harbor from the restaurant's deck this weekend should be a good indicator of things to come, he says.

"When you see nothing but boats, when all the slips are taken and there's no place to tie up, that's when things are really going," Bridges says.

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