RESTAURANT owner Joseph Cotellessa takes a break from the back kitchen of his downtown eatery, "Gourmet Brunch," and sits down to talk about bad economic times in this seaside resort community.
Customers are skimping, he says. They are no longer ordering the extras, like desserts, and now they prefer water instead of buying a glass of orange juice. His business, like others, has been hurt by a regional recession and a hurricane last August. Expectant of a good year
"I'm hanging on to the customers I had before, but money is tight," Mr. Cotellessa says. "It had better be a good year, because a lot of people are counting on it."
He and other business owners here are looking forward to the coming months when tourists will flock to Cape Cod and dole out dollars to the region's many restaurants, hotels, and stores.
And Cape Cod proprietors may well be in for a slight improvement over last year.
The tourism industry in New England will probably do a little better than last year as the region's economy emerges from a deep recession, say tourism experts.
That trend will be mirrored in the rest of the United States, according to the US Travel Data Center in Washington. The national recession and Gulf war hurt tourism last year but the outlook is expected to be slightly better this year.
"I think most people are optimistic and hoping that '92 will bring us back to '90 levels after sort of a dismal '91," says Susan Weil, manager of marketing at the US Travel Data Center.
Although no one is yet making projections, there are indications of future growth. A recent American Automobile Association (AAA) survey found that travel planning is up over last year by as much as 25 percent, says spokesman Jerry Cheske.
"There's much more interest today in traveling than there was a year ago," Mr. Cheske says.
But the recession has nevertheless had a decided impact on the habits of today's travelers. Tourists are inclined to take shorter, more frequent trips, say tourism experts.
They are also tending to stay in less expensive accommodations and make greater use of automobiles, says Suzanne Cook, executive director of the US Travel Data Center.
"What we have seen over the last couple of years is that the American consumer has become very creative in adjusting to the types of vacations [they can afford]," Ms. Cook says.
Travel last year in the United States remained stagnant, according to the Travel Data Center's review of the 1991 season last fall. In 1991 the number of "person trips" increased only 1 percent above the number recorded in 1990, says Ms. Weil.
A "person trip" is one person traveling 100 miles or more away from home.
But there are some bright spots on the horizon. Although 1992 may not be a banner year for domestic travel in the US, travel to America by foreign visitors is rising. The US Travel and Tourism Administration is expecting a 6 percent increase in foreign travel to America this year after three years of steady increases, says Scott Johnson, a market research analyst with the agency.
The weak US dollar has attracted European and Japanese travelers particularly, he says. The result is a steadily growing tourist trade surplus, with foreign travelers spending more in the US than American travelers spend when they vacation abroad. Last year, the US ended up with a $10.6 billion tourist trade surplus, says Mr. Johnson.
"With the recession and the dollar being weak, it is difficult for US citizens to travel abroad," he says.
Tourism along the East and West coasts tend to benefit from the influx of foreign visitors. Donal Dermody, dean of the Center for Hospitality Management at Nova University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., predicts a good season ahead for the southeastern section of Florida, due mainly to the influx of visitors from Northern Europe and South America.
"The summer itself is going to be one of the best summers we've ever had in this area," he says. "If we had to depend on American tourists these past few years of the recession, it would have been incredibly difficult. The American business here has certainly slowed down."
But there is still hope for the yearning American traveler. One very affordable option, now gaining popularity, is camping. Sales of campers rise
During the first three months of 1992, sales for recreational vehicles rose sharply over last year, says David Gorin, executive vice president of the National Campground Owners Association. Sale of camping equipment has also remained strong, he says.
Mr. Gorin says the interest in camping is due to a new 1990s attitude of "returning to simpler things."
"The 1990s seems to be more of an era where moderation is socially acceptable," he says. "People are beginning to realize you don't have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars in order to have a good time."