Washington — Throughout the US these balmy late spring days, the multibillion-dollar travel and resort industry is keeping a wary eye on the troubled economy. Recession, mixed with rising unemployment and double-digit inflation, means a potential dropoff in summer travel. Because of severe fuel shortages, the industry was rocked last year by a large number of stay-at- home vacationers. Thus another slump this year could endanger the long-range financial position of some sectors of the industry.
Americans are still fretful about possible summer fuel shortages (although gas, while increasingly expensive, is currently very plentiful). They are also more budget conscious than ever. As a result, they are planning vacations far more carefully than in the past, according to William Hudson, an official of the Travel Industry Association.
That means, he says, US families are "seeking bargains" in accommodations. They are using public transportation more often than in the past, tending to use combinations of trains, buses, and aircraft to get to major resort areas. Once there, they are taking shorter "radial" trips within the same area.
At the same time, he says, they are often staying much closer to metropolitan areas than in the past.
The travel-industry association itself is officially projecting no decrease in either spending or numbers of trips by Americans this summer.
But privately, some hotel and resort officials are not so certain, in part because of declining highway travel.
* Highway travel during March plummeted 6.1 percent compared with last year, the second largest falloff recorded, according to the US Department of Transportation. The worst decline -- a 6.3 percent drop -- occurred last July in the midst of the summer fuel shortage.
In fact, according to DOT, high fuel prices -- not gas shortages -- appears to be pushing US auto driving back to 1977 levels.
* The number of maps requested by members of the American Automobile Association fell 3.9 percent during the first quarter of 1980, compared with the year-earlier period, says Rachel Nilson, an official of the association, which is based in Falls Church, Va.
The biggest drop, 8 percent, took place in March. This falloff came, she says, despite the fact that national surveys indicate a slight drop in the price of fuel nationwide.
Whether the reduction in map requests, means less total auto travel, or just that Americans are taking shorter trips, is yet unclear, says Mrs. Nilson. But all the same, she adds, it does represent somewhat of a break in the pattern of past years.
Here in the Washington area, a major vacation attraction for Americans, overall tourism is expected to decline by about a quarter million people during 1980, according to local officials. In the first quarter of 1980 alone, hotel occupancy fell 7.6 percent.
Officials in such key vacation areas as Miami, Chicago, and parts of the Southwest are also known to be fretting about a falloff in summer vacations. Analysis by the AAA, in fact, indicates that the largest dropoff in requests for "trip maps" by region occurred in the Great Lakes area, a traditional summer vacation haunt for millions of families from the Midwest.
For its part, the travel industry is fighting back whenever possible with special promotions such as low weekend rates, as well as tie-ins with airlines and other common carriers.
According to Mr. Hudson of the travel industry association, it is the increasing use of mass transportation instead of the family car that most leads industry officials to anticipate a good tourism year in 1980. Moreover, he reasons, the fact that people are now driving smaller cars means families will have to turn to common carriers more than in the past. The small cars lack adequate space for everyone plus baggage.
This could mean, some travel officials say, that motels or tourism attractions in out-of- the-way places, or along major freeways, could be the hardest hit in any severe recession this summer. By contrast, the larger resort areas would be expected to hold their own.
Tending to support the argument that many of the larger metropolitan areas will post a good travel year -- or only modest decline -- is the fact that occupancy rates at Holiday Inns are "holding steady" with last year, said Ann Wilson, a company spokeswoman.