Memorial Day Signals Start of the Summer of the Tightwad Tourist

AMERICANS are regaining a touch of wanderlust.

After several years of curtailing vacations, more people are expected to travel in the United States this summer than in the past three years - and perhaps in history.

The growth in domestic travel is a sign that the recession may be easing its curmudgeonly hold on consumer confidence.

But the release is not complete. Even as more Americans are projected to journey from Gettysburg to the Grand Tetons, the trips are likely to be of shorter duration and the amount of money spent modest.

Meet what may be the new archetype of the 1990s: the tightwad traveler.

"This is going to be the decade of the discount shopper in travel," says Dexter Koehl of the Travel Industry Association of America, a trade group. "While people will be traveling in greater numbers, they will not be spending as much."

Memorial Day weekend, the official start of the summer travel season, will offer the first gauge on how many people will be strapping on roof racks or hitching up trailers.

The American Automobile Association (AAA) estimates that 28.1 million Americans will travel over the three-day holiday - the highest number in the nine years the organization has been keeping records.

For the summer, AAA and the Travel Industry Association project a record 232 million Americans will journey 100 miles or more away from home.

"As the impact of the recession on travel continues to lessen, Americans are expected to go on a vacation binge that should hit record numbers this summer," Paul Verkuil, AAA president, said at a recent press conference.

Others aren't quite so bullish. James Cammisa, publisher of Travel Industry Indicators, a Florida-based trade publication, estimates overall domestic travel this summer will be up 3 percent to 4 percent. He says that would make it the best year since 1990.

"The outlook is pretty good," says Mr. Cammisa. "It is no boom-boom year. But there is a lot of pent-up demand since many vacations have not been taken in the past few years."

Some of the nation's favorite haunts reflect varying degrees of expectation:

* Universal Studios Hollywood expects to draw 5 million visitors this summer, the most in its history. Part of this reflects an expected increase in tourism in Los Angeles in general; and part, heavy promotion for a new "Back to the Future" ride set to open in June.

* Visits to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., in the first few months of this year have been running about 8 percent ahead of last year's pace, suggesting it could be a healthy summer.

* Some 282 million people are expected to visit national parks in 1993, a 3 percent increase over last year, which is about average. Visits to the parks have been off 5 percent through the first few months of this year, the result of bad weather in some areas.

A long winter has kept people away from the granite visages at Mount Rushmore. But it has helped draw legions to perennially popular Yosemite National Park: Because of heavy snows earlier in the year, the northern California park's famed waterfalls, usually diaphanous, are flowing like Rasputin's beard.

Snow has limited the public access to the high country. Thus the park last weekend, for the first time in history, had to close its gates to avoid overcrowding in other areas.

More people will be seeing America by car. Last summer, K-mart-priced air fares prompted a surge in air travel. This year the bargains aren't as plentiful, so AAA estimates 82 percent of all vacation trips will be by motor vehicle.

Industry surveys indicate top tourist destinations will be central Florida (with Disney World and other attractions), Branson, Mo. (a country music hub), Yellowstone National Park, Washington, D.C., and the Los Angeles area. Emerging hot spots include Glacier National Park in Montana and the Bunyan-sized 78-acre Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn.

When people get to these places, they will find modestly higher prices. The AAA estimates that a family of four will spend an average of $215 a day for meals, lodging, and car expenses - up $6 since 1991.

Because of differences in the value of the dollar and foreign currencies, the United States should continue to be a popular stop for European vacationers.

Even with all the positive signs, though, analysts caution that consumer spending will have to rebound further before the domestic travel industry revives completely - especially in these days of the frugal tourist.

"Coming out of the recession, we will not likely see a return to the carefree spending days of the 1980s," says Mr. Cammisa.

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