In vogue: family vacations on a budget

Wall Street woes and terror fears spur more RV trips and visits to historic sites.

Call this the summer of the retro-vacation.

Just as in the 1950s, Americans are choosing to pack the cooler, the kids, and Fido in the family car and hit the road rather than take a pricey jaunt to a big city, either here or in Italy.

But while tourist travel is up 2 percent nationally so far this summer, revenues are down almost 10 percent.

Vacationers like the Jeronimos from Wilsonville, Ore., are keeping a tight hold on their pocketbooks. They chose to drive their RV, and when they want a warm bed, they stay with family or friends or hunt for a bargain at a hotel.

Such Ozzie-and-Harriet-type choices are having far-reaching effects. RV parks, like the Water's Edge in Cascade, Idaho, are so packed that they've had to turn people away. But because of a drop in foreign tourists, many national parks have room to spare. And at San Francisco's luxurious Sir Francis Drake Hotel, business is so bad that doorman Tom Sweeney has offered to cut back his hours so other people won't have to be laid off.

This revival of the family vacation can be traced back to Wall Street's woes, terror fears, and a renewed desire to be with loved ones after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. While Massachusetts's tourism chief Paul Sacco hopes the economy bucks up significantly, and soon, he also doesn't want the renewed family spirit to dissipate. "People are choosing to do things that bond family and friends together – like throwing a picnic blanket down at Tanglewood or hiking in the Berkshires," he says. "I hope those values all stay with us, because that's what we're all here for."

The shift to the more low-key family trips is especially evident in New York City. The Big Apple had become quite accustomed to entertaining lavish-spending international tourists who stayed for about a week. By 2000, they'd pushed hotel occupancy rates up over 85 percent and the average price to $237 per night.

Last summer, even before Sept. 11, the recession was already taking its toll. Occupancy rates slipped to 80 percent, and prices dropped 15 percent. That trend has accelerated this summer – even though an estimated 300,000 more tourists are packing the boats to Ellis Island and meandering up Fifth Avenue. Put another way: More American families are coming, but they're staying for shorter periods of time.

"We've seen a surge in patriotic tourism," says Cristyne Nicholas, president and CEO of NYC & Company, the city's tourism bureau. "People want to come to New York to be supportive after Sept. 11, and we're seeing more family travelers."

The Jeronimos parked their RV outside the city and took a bus in. They're staying three days and got a great rate at a good midtown hotel. They're paying only $120 a night – which is about the cost of dinner for two at a finer restaurant in New York.

The Jeronimos came because they wanted their kids to experience New York, from its bagels and delis to the Empire State Building, as well as ground zero.

"That was part of it – not the main reason we came, but being here, we have to see it," says Michael Jeronimo. "There are so many memories associated with it."

The patriotism and family factors are also affecting travel plans in other ways as well. The Travel Industry Association says 48 percent of vacationers this summer will head to historic sites like Mount Rushmore. That's up from 42 percent last year. In addition, 37 percent plan to go to a family reunion, up from 25 percent last year.

Such reunions are packing the rooms at the Driftwood Inn, perched on the rocky shore on Bailey Island in Maine. While things were a bit slow in June and July compared with last year, the Driftwood's Alice Burpee says August is fully booked, thanks to family get-togethers – many of which were planned at the last minute.

But she was surprised by another unusual event this year: cancellations on the Fourth of July, which has rarely, if ever, happened before.

"It was because their hometowns were celebrating the Fourth and they hadn't done it before. Churches were putting on functions, and people wanted to stay home for them," says Ms. Burpee. "There was also some fear about terrorism."

That's also been a factor in prompting many more people to get behind the wheel, rather than take to the skies. According to Massachusetts's Mr. Sacco, the average family trip by car used to be about four to five hours. Now, people are willing to drive eight to 10 hours to get their vacation spot.

The Benson family from Arkansas went even further than that to avoid flying. They drove 18 hours to get to south Florida so they could, among other things, catch a glimpse of Lolita the killer whale at the Miami Seaquarium. "We postponed our trip this year, but finally decided not to let our fears spoil our fun," says Virginia Benson, boosting her youngest daughter up on her shoulders.

Like most other vacation hot spots around the country, Florida posted a 4 percent decline in tourists last year, according to Visit Florida, the state's official tourism marketing corporation. From January to April of this year, revenues were down 3 percent compared with the same period in 2001.

"There are four factors that are preventing us from rebounding," says Rena Callahan of Walt Disney World. "Uncertainty of world events, an economic downturn, lack of consumer confidence, and security concerns." But Florida tourist officials are optimistic that visitor traffic will rebound by the fall.

Tourist traffic is also off at some of the nation's parks, such as Yellowstone, predominately because of a huge drop in visitors from Asia and Europe. That's a result of the sagging international economy and fears about terrorism.

But there are signs that things are beginning to pick up in some states. Idaho, for example, which measures its tourist traffic by how much revenue its room tax generates, had been down since last year. But the state, which touts "Great Potatoes, Tasty Destinations," registered a surprising 6.5 percent increase in July compared with the same period last year.

"We were happy about that," says Ron Gardner of the Idaho Department of Commerce's Tourism Development Division. "We're getting a lot of families who are driving in from nearby states."

They're packing places like the Water's Edge, an RV resort nestled next to the Payette River in a mountain valley. Last year, Katrin Thompson and her husband added 25 new sites to their 100-site RV park. Sometimes they sat empty. But this year, the Thompsons have had to turn people away, especially on weekends.

"It just kills me to do it," says Ms. Thompson. "But when you're full, you're full. It's not fair to the people who reserved long in advance to just stack people anywhere."

Things are going so well, in fact, that the Thompsons have decided to take a big risk and build a little hotel nearby.

There are even signs of hope at the Drake Hotel in San Francisco. Doorman Sweeney, who has worked there 25 years, says the past few months had been the slowest he has ever seen in any recession. It was so bad that it was easy to catch a cable car, which is usually a challenge at the height of summer.

But now, lines are beginning to form again at the corner. "I've seen tourism picking up in the last month, so that's been a good sign," he says. "September and October are usually our best months, so we're hoping for a second-half recovery here."

• Elizabeth Armstrong in San Francisco and Jennifer LeClaire in Miami contributed to this report.

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