Tourism officials don’t expect gas prices to change vacation plans

LANSING – As the summer tourism season nears, industry experts in Traverse City have high hopes that the city’s new “Take Me There” theme will lure more travelers to the area.

Although it might sweeten the attraction if someone else pays for the gasoline, officials said that record-high gas prices aren’t a decisive factor in vacation plans so far.

“We’re seeing a much stronger spring than last year,” said Mike Norton, public relations director for the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau. “In the last week or two, we’ve had more people come here on the spur of the moment, and that’s the type of thing that’s usually curtailed with high gas prices.”

Average gas prices statewide fell to $2.352 per gallon on April 11 after reaching an all-time high of $2.36 three days earlier, according to AAA Michigan’s fuel gauge report. Prices in the Traverse City area have topped $2.36 for unleaded gas and remain around $2.35 per gallon, according to Cheryl Dunson, service manager at AAA’s Traverse City branch.

Lt. Gov. John Cherry said there’s nothing the state can do about the high prices without triggering a negative impact on state roads.

“We’re limited by what we can do because of interstate commerce laws,” he said. “The only thing possible would be to lower the gas tax, but if we do that we lose money for road construction, so it’s a double-edged sword.”

Michigan’s gas tax is 19 cents per gallon.

There are several construction projects planned for M-31, M-37 and M-72 this year, but it appears they won’t hamper tourism in the Traverse City area. One project already under way along M-37 at Chum’s Corner is scheduled for completion in August, according to Gary Niemi, a development engineer with the Michigan Department of Transportation’s Traverse City office.

Niemi said none of the projects should affect traffic on Memorial Day weekend, and work at Chum’s Corner will stop for all of July to accommodate traffic for the Fourth of July and Cherry Festival celebrations.

Meanwhile, Norton predicted that higher gas prices will have little impact on travel costs for visitors from Detroit, Cleveland or other parts of the Midwest, which he called Traverse City’s strongest tourist market.

“If gas prices are fluctuating 10 to 20 cents a gallon it looks huge, but what does that do for a round trip?” he said. “It adds about $10 or $20 to the overall cost, and who can’t afford that?”

Business officials are also noticing a strong start to the tourist season, and many agree with Norton that most summer vacations won’t hinge on the cost of filling the tank.

“Our booking pace is ahead of normal now that we have something resembling spring,” said Robert Gattin, general manager of the Holiday Inn West Bay in Traverse City. “Even though gas prices are capturing a lot of public attention, I think people are accustomed to seasonal changes in prices and optimistic that they’ll go down a bit.”

Gattin said another positive trend is an increase in reservations for corporate packages.

“In the last few years, with the economy down, there’s been a sharp decline in business spending for education,” he said, “but we’re starting to book more small business meetings of maybe 20 to 50 people that we haven’t seen in a while.”

Joan O’Neill, public relations manager at Crystal Mountain Resort in Thompsonville, said that corporate business at her facility has been strong for several years and should continue in 2005.

Favorable weather in April helped boost golf and lodging bookings by 21 percent over last year, she said, and business packages also contributed to the increase in golfing reservations.

“Our calls are definitely ahead of pace and a lot of those are group calls for meetings and conventions, which typically helps the golf portion of our business,” she said.

Borgstrom added that the resort has more than doubled the number of its seven-day bookings from last year.

The area’s target market is still the family. Some businesses, like Bay Breeze Yacht Charters & Sales in Traverse City, are adding instruction to vacations in hopes of creating a well-rounded vacation package to draw travelers for more than sandy beaches and lush greens.

In addition to charting yachts with or without a captain, Bay Breeze staff teaches people how to sail, which Dee Smith, the company’s public relations official, said is meant to entice tourists who want more than rest and relaxation.

“We’ve been pushing toward a learning vacation, and we think couples, individuals or families who want to learn a new skill as part of their vacation could be the wave of the future,” she said.

But some tourism experts are more cautious about the summer forecast, and say the biggest effect of higher gas prices could be an increase in travel within the state.

Don Holecek, director of the Michigan Travel, Tourism and Recreation Center at Michigan State University, said the state’s tourism industry has stagnated since Sept. 11, 2001.

He predicted no more than a 1 percent to 2 percent growth in spending on state tourism, which is minimal when inflation and other operational costs are factored into the equation.

And Kirsten Borgstrom, media relations manager with Travel Michigan, said that while high gas prices will have little effect, her agency is noticing more in-state travel.

“We’re seeing people book trips closer to home, but we’ve also been providing a lot of information on one-tank trips where people can reach their destinations on a single tank of gas,” she said. “People are trying to save where they can by looking for deals and discounts. And some families might shorten their trips by a day or two, but I don’t think we’ll see many people canceling their trips altogether.” BN