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Summer Spike in Gas Prices Could Mean
Vacationers Stay Closer to Home

By Pauline Arrillaga   Associated Press
James McKenna isn't too worried that gas prices could go as high as $1.80 per gallon this summer.

That might sound odd coming from the top tourism official at Lake Placid, N.Y., a vacation spot that even he calls a "rubber-tire destination."

Yet McKenna estimates that tourists driving up from New York City would pay about $8 more in gas each way should prices increase. In today's booming economy, he said, that's still a bargain.

"You can't even get a glass of wine for eight bucks," he said.

The Energy Department on Monday predicted that gasoline prices, already averaging about $1.50 for a gallon for unleaded, would spike at $1.75 to $1.80 this summer because production isn't keeping pace with demand.

The timing couldn't be worse. The period between Memorial Day and Labor Day is typically the busiest driving season of the year, with an estimated 270 million people hitting the road for vacation, according to the American Automobile Association.

AAA spokesman Geoff Sundstrom said that while many travelers won't change their plans because of a few additional bucks a tank, some could decide to stay closer to home and skip trips to more remote destinations such as national parks out West.

"If prices continue to move up and begin to reach the $2 a gallon level, psychologically Americans may not be prepared to deal with that and continue business as usual with the family budget," he said.

It's a situation that worries Keela Mangum. The owner of Grand Canyon Trail Rides fears that if gas prices continue to skyrocket, the booming summer travel season she was counting on might turn out to be a bust.

"This is kind of bleak looking for us," said Mangum, whose family run business provides mule rides along the Grand Canyon's North Rim, 270 miles from the nearest major airport in Las Vegas. "We're at the end of the world as it is."

Farther west, there are similar concerns for Bob Ferguson, owner of Zephyr Whitewater Expeditions in Columbia, Calif., just north of Yosemite National Park. Ferguson said he'll have to hike ticket prices should gas prices continue to rise.

"If things got way out of hand we could add a little for the cost of gas," he said. "There's not a whole lot you can do. You just have to bite the bullet, and hope the prices will go down."

Tourism officials in the Lake Tahoe area said they don't believe higher gas prices will keep that many people away.

"We had a great Presidents Day weekend and gas prices were already on the rise then," said Carol Tanis, spokeswoman for the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitors Authority. "While gas prices are up, the economy seems to be doing well."

Tahoe-area ski resorts have followed the holiday weekend with two more big weekends, thanks primarily to a pair of large snow storms in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

"The good snow may help outweigh the higher gas prices," Tanis said.

Tourism officials in towns along the East Coast also were optimistic.

Donny Beaver, the proprietor of Paradise Outfitters, which offers getaway weekends at fly fishing resorts in Pennsylvania, said his business could actually benefit from higher gas prices.

"I think a lot of folks try to use us as a surrogate for a 10-day trip to Yellowstone," said Beaver, adding that his resorts typically draw customers from an area that stretches to Cleveland, New York and Washington, D.C.

Even in Florida, where AAA's Sundstrom said more vacationers travel by car than in any other state, tourism officials weren't concerned. Gerard Hoeppner, spokesman for Busch Gardens in Tampa, said the price surge might even persuade Floridians to vacation — in Florida.

"If people choose not to go out of state," he said, "that's good for us."

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