Memorial Day holiday travel plans stay mostly unchanged

Friday, May 23, 2003

The federal government's latest security warning could spoil some people's travel plans this Memorial Day, but fears alone won't stop people like Paul Giller.

The 32-year-old from Cohoes, N.Y., won't be deterred from going to Australia. "If something bad is going to happen, it's going to happen," he said. "You can't let evil people dictate how you live."

Airports across the country upped security efforts -- police patrols and random vehicle checks -- soon after the federal government on Tuesday raised the security alert level to orange, or the second highest.

But those in charge of many Memorial Day events say the celebrations will go on. And travel agents say vacationers, far from canceling plans, are still booking trips.

"The first time it happened, people were concerned," Pamela Waring, a travel agent in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., said Wednesday. "But today I've been busy writing airline tickets."

The Amercian Automobile Association said last week it expects 29.4 million people on the nation's roads this weekend, fewer than the estimated 35.2 million people who decided to drive last year.

Association spokeswoman Colleen Healey said the orange alert level isn't likely to change the number of motorists this year, given that many made their plans during the last elevated security level in March during the war in Iraq.

"A lot of people have taken the terrorism issue, the SARS issue and the war into account when they make their travel plans," Healey said, echoing the thoughts of other travel industry watchers.

"People are like 'Oh, OK, now what?"' said Julie Steinberg, the manager of Rosenbluth Vacations in Philadelphia. "I honestly think that people probably don't even listen half the time anymore."

Officials, particularly in New York City and Washington, D.C., said patrols around transportation centers and landmarks would increase. Philadelphia police also will take the alert seriously, said Police commissioner Sylvester Johnson.

"If something were to occur, and, I stress, on very short notice, we could have thousands of people responding," said Lt. Col. Chris Cleaver, spokesman for the Pennsylvania National Guard.

While Philadelphia police will increase patrols, Seattle police said they wouldn't. "There's not a whole lot we can do differently," said officer Scott Moss, a spokesman.

Officials at the Indianapolis 500, which attracts the largest single-day crowd in American sports, said they were satisfied with the security plan they had in place before the alert level was raised.

Federal authorities, though, banned flights over the track during this weekend's race, where some 300,000 fans, including former presidents Bush and Clinton, are expected.

As in every race since the 2001 terror attacks, coolers, handbags and backpacks will be subject to inspection at the track gates. Plainclothes police will be stationed outside the track and throughout the speedway grounds.

Joanna Pike, a fan at the track Wednesday, said the elevated terror alert didn't bother her at all. "I think the president and all the police have everything under control. They keep the track under good security."

Florida security chief Steve Lauer said most Sunshine State vacationers wouldn't notice the increased security. "It's going to be most apparent in seaports and airports and our major venues," he said.

More than 200,000 visitors are expected at South Beach -- a tourist friendly part of Miami Beach -- for a hip-hop event being promoted as Urban Beach Week 2003.

Miami Beach spokeswoman Janet Lopez said officials already had a comprehensive security plan in place before the increased threat level. At least 510 officers will work 12-hour shifts, 40 more than in last year's holiday weekend.

There has been no talk of elevated security alerts in Hibbing, Minn., the hometown of folk singer Bob Dylan, which is midway through its annual "Dylan Days" celebration.

"They've been coming from New York, California -- coast to coast," said Linda Hocking, who manages a bar and grill in Hibbing. "We're so far off the beaten path. ... We're not thinking of terrorism here."

One thing the higher security alert might reinforce is a trend travel agents have noted since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- people aren't traveling far from home.

"With things such as the war, SARS, terrorism threats, people tend to travel more in their comfort zone," said the AAA's Healey. "That comfort zone is closer to home."

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