Costs up, but most still going

Ocean City boosters have revived their 1970s slogan that half a tank will get you there. At Deep Creek Lake, a rental agency is offering a $25 gas card as an incentive to vacationers. And in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, the owner of a beachfront home is cutting the rate on a week's rental "to save you $150 to use for gas!"

With the average price of regular gasoline in Maryland closing in on $4 - it stood at $3.80 yesterday as crude oil soared to a new record - the cost of travel is very much on the mind of people in the region's tourism business. But so far, it appears the effect on summer vacation plans may be slight.


AAA Mid-Atlantic released figures yesterday projecting less than a 1 percent decrease in the number of Marylanders planning to travel more than 50 miles this Memorial Day weekend - traditionally seen as a barometer of summer vacation activity. It was the first year since 2002, when travel was still chilled by the Sept. 11 attacks, that the annual survey has shown a drop, but AAA spokesman Mahlon G. "Lon" Anderson said the surprise was that travel plans have held up as much as they have.

"The fact that it is only a slight downtick is really amazing," Anderson said. "It's a testament to how much we are a nation of travelers and we will not be deterred."


But Anderson said the AAA survey showed that Americans will be staying closer to home this summer, with 40 percent planning a trip of 250 miles or less this weekend.

"That sounds like an Ocean City vacation to me," he said at a Kent Island news conference.

One Marylander who is cutting back her travel plans is Karen Bowyer of Baltimore. She had been planning to go with her husband to a school reunion in Pax, W.Va., a drive she estimated at six or seven hours. But she figured it could cost a couple of hundred dollars to get there in her Chrysler van.

Then she learned that other family members are canceling plans to attend because of gas prices. Now she's leaning toward staying home or taking a shorter trip.

"We might go to the ocean or to Assateague," she said.

That's the type of thinking Ocean City Mayor Richard W. Meehan is hoping to encourage.

Back to the 70s

Meehan was at the AAA's bayside event yesterday, working to revive the bumper sticker slogan coined by then-Mayor Harry W. Kelley during the oil shocks of the 1970s - "1/2 Tank of Gas to Ocean City Maryland."


"We haven't moved. We're still in a great location," Meehan said. With clear skies in the forecast, the mayor predicted the resort would attract more than the 250,000 people who went there Memorial Day weekend last year.

Despite an aura of uncertainty, common sense and experience tell many whose bottom line depends on the traditional 100-day rush from Memorial Day to Labor Day that they ought to be "cautiously optimistic."

In the meantime, fingers are crossed, and resort businesses are slicing prices and offering deals such as a promotion coordinated by 20 Ocean City hotels and motels that combines a week's lodging with a fist-full of coupons for discounts and freebies all over town.

"There are more bargains and deals out there than I can ever remember," said Annemarie Dickerson, whose family has owned the Francis Scott Key Family Resort since 1972. "You have to think the price of gas makes us more attractive. Gas prices and the overall economy will dictate everything, but I believe people are going to want that break and we're closer."

John Tremellen, general manager of the Princess Royale Hotel, says it's too early to know how the economy and gas prices might be felt in the resort. With gas about 68 cents more than last year, fuel costs alone aren't likely to force tourists to stay home, he said.

"An average 150-mile trip in a family SUV would cost $13 round trip more than last year," Tremellen. "It's the price of everything else going up that could make a difference for people. We'll know a lot more after Monday."


Last-minute rush

Up the coast, Delaware beach rental manager Sheila Davolos says forecasts of near-perfect beach weather this weekend have people scrambling by telephone and on the Internet to line up a place to stay.

Susan Jones, executive director of Ocean City's hotel, motel and restaurant association, says that advance bookings for the weekend and the rest of the summer are above normal at some of the larger hotels, but are lagging elsewhere.

"A lot of our mom-and-pop hotels are offering really good bargains at $95 or $100 a night," said Jones. "It's not a typical year. Some people seem to have picked up by promoting themselves."

At the other end of the state near Deep Creek Lake, Bob Orr, owner of Offlake Rentals in Oakland, said high gas prices have had no negative effect on his business. He said he's completely booked for the Memorial Day weekend and has had to turn about 20 potential customers away.

Playing it safe


But Orr is taking no chances. He's offering a $25 gas card - enough, he says, to get back to Baltimore - to renters of his units.

Sarah Duck, marketing director for the Garrett County Chamber of Commerce, said other local rental agencies were planning their own promotions - to be posted on the business group's Web site June 1.

"We're still anticipated to have a 15 percent increase in bookings this year," she said. "We're doing what we can to make sure that becomes a reality."

For some Marylanders, summer is an occasion to venture farther afield - to out-of-state resorts such as Virginia Beach or North Carolina's Outer Banks.

While some Ocean City merchants are expressing hope that they will capture some of that business, rental agencies in those beach areas - even as far south as Ocracoke Island, N.C. - say bookings by Baltimore-Washington area residents remain high.

R. Stewart Couch, owner of Hatteras Realty, estimated that a 400-mile drive from Maryland to the far southern end of the Outer Banks could cost about $80. That would amount to roughly $14 more than a year ago.


"I don't think $80 is going to break the bank," he said. Rather than change vacation habits, he said, travelers are more likely to stay in for dinner.

Still, some of his clients are hedging their bets. In addition to the one offering a $150 "gas" discount for off-season weeks, several are offering gas rebates of $50 to $75.

Couch said that isn't a sign of a weak market. In fact, he said, business in the Outer Banks is benefiting from a decline in travel to Europe, where the dollar's value has plunged.

And is he also seeing an increase in visitors from Europe?

"Oui, si and ja," he said.