Americans are pulling out their Rand McNally road maps and rediscovering the homeland. From Gettysburg, Pa., to the Grand Tetons, a banner year is expected at many United States tourist havens as a growing number of Americans spurn European vacations in favor of forays in their own backyard.
The fundamental shift in travel patterns is being driven by a rare confluence of political and economic factors, including fear of terrorism abroad, plunging gasoline prices at home, a declining US dollar (which makes overseas travel more expensive), and strong consumer confidence.
If 1984 and '85 were the ``years of Europe,'' '86 appears to be the year of North America.
``I cannot think of another period in time when so many factors have come together to trigger a strong domestic travel year,'' says James V. Cammisa, publisher of Travel Industry Indicators, a New York-based trade publication.
He projects that while the number of Americans visiting Europe will drop 15 percent this year, domestic tourism should climb by close to 10 percent.
Although most annual surveys by major travel associations are not yet out, there are already signs that 1986 will be a year of new American mobility:
A record 284 million people are expected to visit areas in the National Park Service system this year -- a 5 to 7 percent jump over 1985. In recent years, visits have been growing on the order of 1 to 2 percent a year.
The increased traffic, however, will mean added population pressures at some parks already hurt by overcrowding and other environmental problems.
The nation's two far-flung outposts -- Alaska and Hawaii -- are both bracing for an influx of tourists this year. Alaska officials expect to see a 10 percent jump in visits in 1986, while Hawaii is looking to surpass the 5 million-tourist mark for the first time ever. ``We have been doing very well so far,'' says Stanley Hong, president of the Hawaii Visitors Bureau.
A number of the nation's big theme parks have been doing unusually well so far this year. Attendance is up at both Disneyland in California and Disney World in Florida.
Meanwhile, some domestic air carriers are experiencing strong bookings so far this year, while the American Automobile Association (AAA) reports that requests for its tour books -- an indicator of domestic car travel -- are running 9 percent ahead of last year's pace.
``The outlook is very positive for domestic travel by automobile,'' the AAA's Allan Wilbur says.
The biggest reason for the expected domestic tourism boom is the fear of flying overseas. A continuing spate of terrorist violence in Europe and the Middle East -- including last week's bomb explosion aboard a Rome-to-Athens flight -- has caused many Americans to cancel trips abroad this year.
Among the hardest hit has been Greece, where, even before last week's bombing, as much as a 40 percent drop-off in American tourism was expected. But there has also been a sharp decline in bookings to Israel and Egypt, because of the recent US sparring with Libya and other regional tensions.
Throughout the Mediterranean, countries are bracing for fewer American visitors this year. Several big cruise lines have pulled out of the Mediterranean market since last summer's hijackings of a TWA jetliner out of Athens and the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro. Some of their tour ships are being redeployed to Alaska and Vancouver, British Columbia, where this summer's world's fair is expected to be a major tourist draw.
Moreover, even though travel agents expect bookings to some northern European countries to be up this year, overall American visits to the Continent will likely be down. The declining value of the dollar, whose strength on currency-exchange markets has made Europe a bargain-basement vacation spot the past three years, is a chief reason.
Adding to Americans' desire to stay closer to home this year are dipping gasoline prices, which analysts predict could fall 10 to 20 cents more by summer, and a stable US economy. For the past two years of economic growth, many Americans with extra disposable income have spent it on durable goods, such as cars and refrigerators.
Now, analysts say, consumer spending on leisure activities is expected to jump.
``Consumer discretionary spending is a lot greater now than in the early post-recession months,'' says Mr. Cammisa.
Some analysts also suggest that this year's Fourth of July celebration, featuring the unveiling of a refurbished Statue of Liberty, could rekindle American patriotic fervor and step up tourism all across the country.