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Americans shrink summer vacations

In Gift from the Sea, published in 1955, Anne Morrow Lindbergh wrote, "By and large, mothers and housewives are the only workers who do not have regular time off. They are the great vacationless class."

Today, half a century later, that vacationless class has grown.

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For many Americans, the traditional summer vacation -- an extended holiday from the cares of day-to-day living -- is fading, eroded by social and economic forces. In its place, more families are squeezing weekend escapes to nearby destinations into their busy lives.

That change appears to have gained momentum this year, with large implications for tourism and in the lives of Americans.

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The shift has produced visible results in Maryland, from Ocean City to the National Aquarium in Baltimore to Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort in the western part of the state, where more visitors are showing up on weekends and fewer at midweek, when traditional vacationers might be present.

A poll conducted in June by Harris Interactive showed that 51 percent of Americans did not think they would take a summer vacation and an additional 7 percent had delayed plans.

"I was stunned that half of Americans were not planning to take a vacation," said Jim Bradley, a spokesman for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which commissioned the poll.

"That certainly flies in the face of recent history. We thought, 'What's going on in the minds of Americans?'"

But, in retrospect, a pattern of shifting behavior has been evident for years, he said.

"Five or six years ago, people booked their vacation plans 90 to 120 days out," Bradley said. "It's under 30 days now. It's not unusual for people who are on their way here to use a cell phone to make reservations."

Worsening trend

Joe Robinson, author of Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life, has studied the vacation issue for 10 years and seen radical changes in that period.

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"This has gotten worse and worse," he said. "The standard unit of an American vacation is now a long weekend. It's downsizing of vacations, the way everything else has been downsized."

The survey results came as no surprise to him.

"This year we have statistics that back up what we've heard anecdotally," he said.

Despite evidence that an annual vacation can cut the risk of heart attack by 30 percent in men and 50 percent in women, guilt and fear keep people from taking their vacations, said Robinson, founder of the Work to Live campaign, which is lobbying for a federal law requiring three weeks of paid leave.

"The fact that there isn't a minimum paid vacation law gives them a sense of illegitimacy," he said.

To Europeans, to whom vacations are sacrosanct and who four or five weeks of vacation guaranteed by law, our "live to work" ethic is appalling.

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"Americans are bad about that," said Judith Siguaw, a marketing professor at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University.

"Now with the economy bad and job security concerns, people aren't taking vacations at all. They're afraid to leave the office," she said.

Feeling the effects

Maryland tourism officials are seeing the telltale indicators in an increased number of vacancy signs at midweek in Ocean City. The Rocky Gap Lodge and the National Aquarium also have seen their numbers dip at midweek.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation reports attendance is down from last year -- and last year's attendance was the lowest in nearly 30 years, Bradley said. About 840,000 people visited the attraction in 2002, he said.

"I think so far our numbers are bearing a lot of the results of the survey out," he said. "Not as many people are traveling. Those that are, are taking shorter trips."

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Given the dire survey results, many tourism officials are happy that the repercussions have not been worse.

Midweek slowdown

At Maryland's western edge, weekends have been sold out at the Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort, but the middle of the weeks have been slower than last year, said Tim Grambley, general manager at the 217-room, state-backed resort.

"We're about 10 percent off," he said. "These are the families who would have come midweek and stayed three or four nights."

Compared with last July, lodge occupancy was down about 6 percent, Grambley said.

"July slowed down midweek," he said. "I don't know how to explain it. It just did."

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In contrast, the hotel's September through November business is stronger than at any time in the history of the hotel, a phenomenon Grambley attributes to improving corporate confidence in the economy.

The National Aquarium, which does not release partial year numbers, reports having a "great" summer.

"One thing that's been puzzling to me is that we're soft on weekdays," said Lyn Frankel, senior director of marketing at the aquarium. "But if more people are coming to Baltimore as a weekend getaway, they're coming on the weekends instead of being here during the week like in past years."

'A step down'

Frankel asserts that the economy affects the type of vacation that people are willing to take.

"People who would typically go to the beach for eight or 10 days are saying, 'We'll go to Baltimore for the weekend,'" she said.

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"The people who maybe would have gone to Europe before are now maybe going to the beach. So it's almost like a step down from every economic level," Frankel said.

Year-to-date, through early August, attendance at the aquarium is flat against projections and down 5 percent against last year. But last year was a sluggish one for many of the attractions that ring the Inner Harbor because of multiple terror alerts around holidays, a hot summer, the troubled economy and sniper shootings last fall.

This winter, the aquarium was closed for four days as a result of snow and suffered lower numbers on several other days because of snow issues -- a loss of about 25,000 visitors, Frankel said.

The evidence from Ocean City is anecdotal because the town tracks only its population on weekends, not weekdays.

"We're seeing a lot more vacancy signs midweek," said Donna Abbott, a spokeswoman for the town's tourism office. "Maybe people are taking more long weekends and not taking the weeks at a time."

Annemarie Dickerson, owner of the Francis Scott Key Motel on Route 50 in West Ocean City, has seen evidence of that phenomenon.

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"I think, coming off the war, people who normally would vacation for a week opted for a long weekend," she said. "People are shortening their stays."

Cloudy forecast

Going into July, business at Trimper Rides and Amusements was off by 25 percent from last year, said Granville D. Trimper, president and chief executive. He did not yet have the July report.

"When it rains, we're out of business in the amusement park business," he said. "It's been an awful summer up and down the East Coast."

As for the apparent trend away from traditional vacations, Trimper doesn't believe it. He attributes most of the resort strip's woes to weather and perhaps high prices.

"When our weather is good, we've had the crowds we always have," he said.

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The Fourth of July weekend, for instance, broke records, Abbott said. The town played host to an estimated 342,952 people that weekend -- the highest number in 12 years.

A lost cause

But for Trimper and some others, the die is cast.

"Even with a good second half of August and a good September, there's no way to recover for the season," he said.


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