Vacationing Americans rediscover the automobile

Americans appear eager to "hit the road" during the 1981 travel season. For many, it will mean dusting off suitcases that have not been used in two years. Rapidly rising gasoline prices and concerns about the availability of motor fuel have made homebodies out of many would-be automobile travelers since 1979.

But travel industry analysts say that all seems to be changing this year. Whether it is a trip to a national park, a weekend at a resort, or a drive to see relatives, they say, Americans in growing numbers are getting back into the habit of driving to their vacation spots.

The most visible cause of the change appears to be good news at the gasoline pump. Prices are stable and motor fuel is in ample supply. Indeed, the average retail price of gasoline in the US, as reported May 21 by the American Automobiles Association (AAA), was $1.38 a gallon. That is a penny cheaper than a month ago and the same price reported in early March.

Many travel analysts, looking at the downturn in vacation traffic the past two years, have concluded the decline was primarily a function of motorists being concerned that they might not find open gas stations while traveling. Uncertainty about gasoline prices, which seemed to rise almost weekly, was also a factor.

A considerable number of travelers began flying to vacation destinations, and renting a car instead of making the full trip by automobile. However, rapidly rising air fares and reliable gasoline supplies have pretty well stalled that trend.

"People seem to have gotten used to higher gasoline prices," an AAA spokesman says.

Several barometers indicate the trend to more automobile travel this year. The AAA reports that travel routings requested by individual members were 11 percent higher in the first quarter of 1981 over last year's January-to-March period. The US Travel Data Center, a nonprofit research group, says travel in general in the United States is at a level higher than in 1980, with the upswing in the use of the automobile particularly strong. The same group says its surveys show more Americans planning to take trips this year.

"We are returning to more normal patterns, and there is a definite resurgence in automobile vacation travel," says Douglas C. Frechtling, director of the US Travel Data Center.

A not-so-favorable implication of this trend may be an end to the gains the US has made in conserving gasoline over the past two years.Vacation driving is discretionary and cutbacks are believed to have been a strong contributor to the overall reduction in vehicle miles driven in the US in 1979 and 1980.

However, the travel industry is quick to assert that fuel savings can be sustained with improved automobile efficiency in the future, even if there is more driving.

The summer travel season does not really begin until the middle of June. And while the indicators point to a good season, vacation traffic may not be uniformly higher.

This spring, for example, some national parks have bounced back from a poor 1980 while others show no sign yet of resurgence.

Big Bend National Park in southwest Texas so far is having a slow season, following a downturn in 1980. By contrast, Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is drawing more crowds this year than last.

Garner Hanson, president of National Park Concessions Inc., which operates concessions in both those parks, figures the disparate experiences are due to today's higher priced gasoline. Mammoth Cave is relatively close to some large metropolitan areas, and so is a relatively inexpensive automobile trip for many. Big Bend, on the other hand, is isolated and a long ride for most visitors.

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