Domestic vacation spots may benefit from fervor for road trips

Tuesday, May 27, 2003


At the Greenville Arms in the Catskills, owner Eliot Dalton exudes spring-like optimism as a new coat of paint is applied to the backyard studio and flowers come to life.

Bookings are decent enough ahead of Memorial Day that he contemplates raising the rates at the inn, which is a retreat for artists.

"We're off to a slow start," Dalton said, noting the economic slump, "but it looks like we'll make up for it."

While the economy, SARS and terrorism are discouraging global tourism, U.S. vacation spots within driving distance could get a boost from travelers who do not want to fly or visit faraway places, industry officials say.

Travel agents said they are seeing -- and promoting -- interest in road trips everywhere from the southern tip of the Appalachian to northern Michigan's Mackinac Island, and across California's Sierra Nevada.

By raising the terror alert to orange last week, the government may have given travelers another reason to avoid airports and major metropolitan areas.

"Anything with a nonurban area ring to it is doing well," said John Stachnik, president of Mayflower Tours, a Downers, Ill.-based travel company specializing in bus and air travel. This summer, Stachnik added, bus trips are the "shining star" of his business, accounting for more than 50 percent of revenue.

AAA, the automobile club, said the latest terror alert would not affect its prediction from last week that 84 percent of all Memorial Day vacations will be by car and 11 percent by air.

"If something serious happens on our soil, then conditions could change," AAA spokesman Jerry Cheske said.

The owners of resorts and inns in Greenville, about 150 miles north of New York City, say that advance bookings are flat or down 10 percent to 15 percent from a year ago so far, but that -- as in past years -- they expect a burst of business once it gets warmer.

"I've been through this before," said Jyl DeGiovine, whose grandparents founded the Balsam Shade Resort in Greenville nearly 70 years ago. "It usually picks up at the last minute and everything is fine."

The airline industry has less reason for hope.

The number of miles flown per passenger is down 7 percent from a year ago and down more than 15 percent from 2001, the most recent Air Transport Association figures show.

A closer look reveals how fears of terrorism and SARS are altering travel patterns. For example, U.S. bookings for North American and European air travel in June are slightly higher than a year ago, while bookings to Asia, Africa and the Middle East are down sharply, according to Sabre Airline Solutions, a consulting business.

Four to five hours

While the airline industry is seeing improved bookings in some places, that demand is being generated at a price: cheap tickets. The average leisure fare on the 100 busiest U.S. routes is 7 percent cheaper than a year ago and 13 percent less than in 2001, according to Harrell Associates, a consulting firm.

"We're finding more and more people wanting to do things within a comfortable driving radius of, say, four to five hours," said Dale Eyerly Colson, president of the travel agency Travelstar Inc. of Westport, Conn.

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