This summer, high rollers are flying to lavish hot spots for their vacations. The rest of us are driving to less luxurious places like nearby campgrounds.
The good news: At some U.S. campgrounds these days you get live bands, air guitar contests and chocolate pudding slip ‘n slides.
According to an Associated Press report, Americans’ plans for summer travel mirror the current state of the economy. Rising home prices and a soaring stock market are encouraging those at the top of the income ladder to take more extravagant trips. But large segments of the population are staying close to home because wages are stagnant, rents are high and the end of the payroll tax holiday has shrunk their take-home pay.
For a travel industry still stinging from the Great Recession, that likely means another summer of steady, but slow, recovery.
As vacationers set out this summer, here’s what they can expect:
• Gas prices about the same as last year: The national average price of gasoline was $3.65 a gallon Friday, 1 cent higher than during last year’s Memorial Day weekend. Tom Kloza, chief oil analyst at GasBuddy.com, expects prices to drift lower after the holiday and fall close to last summer’s low of $3.33 per gallon before hurricane season starts to drag them up again.
• More expensive hotel rooms: The average hotel will cost $112.21, before taxes and any other add-on such as resort fees. That’s up 4.4% from last year’s $107.52, according to hotel research firm STR. Hotels are also expected to be slightly fuller, with occupancy rates climbing from 69.3% last summer to 70% this year.
• Packed planes, steady airfare: Airlines for America, the industry’s lobby group, expects 208.7 million people to fly, up 1% from last year. About 87% of airplane seats will be filled with paying passengers. Domestic fliers will pay $421 on average for a round trip ticket, down $6 from last summer. International fliers will pay $1,087, up $8, according to the Airlines Reporting Corp.
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Most southern Michigan state park campgrounds are booked to near capacity this weekend and, surprise, they might be pretty full throughout the summer.
The Grand Rapids Press reported that year-to-date campsite reservations are up 14.5% from 2010, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.
That’s one of several indicators that suggest state tourism could be in for a hot summer.
“I was pleasantly surprised because I thought with the general economy in Michigan, and gas prices taking that leap they did, that would be a depressing factor,” said Harold Herta, chief of resource management in the DNR’s parks and recreation division.
“Maybe it’s more people are sticking closer to home and they’re not going to Disney World. Maybe people have adjusted to life in Michigan and hunkered down.”
A Michigan State University study projects a 4% increase in tourism spending this year, fueled largely by a return of wealthier travelers to higher-end destinations. But rising campground bookings suggest an increase across the tourism market, said Dan McCole, who authored the report with Sarah Nicholls.
Tourism spending was up 3.4% last year after a 13.6% decline in 2009.
Though the study released in early spring was based on a peak summer gas price of $3.70 per gallon, McCole said the current price flirting with $4 a gallon likely will have little impact on most travelers. A road trip in a typical car from Grand Rapids to the Mackinac Bridge and back, for example, would cost an extra $32 in gas compared to last summer’s price at the pump.
“Vacation has become a right,” said McCole, a professor in MSU’s Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation and Resource Studies. “Because vacation is still important to people, they’re likely to say ‘Hey, you know what, we’ll make cuts in other parts of our lives. The extra $30 (in gas), we’ll suck it up because we really want to have this vacation.’”
More than 1.1 million Michigan residents will travel this weekend, based on responses to a AAA Michigan survey, and more than 90% will drive. Six out of 10 respondents said gas prices will not affect their plans, while 70% of the rest said they would cut spending in other areas. Some travelers plan to take a shorter trip.
Gun Lake Rentals in Barry County bought two more boats and raised some prices in anticipation of high demand this summer. About 75% of his fleet is reserved for this weekend, owner Alex Cazala said.
“We’ve seen a change from people coming from out of town and doing weekly rentals to a lot of local people coming out for the day from Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo,” he said. “Basically, people are staying local so we’re still busy.
“We expect to see good business as long as we get a nice warm summer.”
The summer forecast calls for temperatures cooler than last year’s 82.6-degree average high, but not as cold as the typical 77.6-degree high in 2009, with normal precipitation, said Bob Suttle, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Grand Rapids.
Good weather proved helpful in attracting an estimated 400,000-plus people to this month’s Tulip Time, said Gwen Auwerda, executive director. Hotel stays were up 33% from last year, she said.
“We feel that attendance was up,” Auwerda said. “It didn’t appear that anybody had a struggle getting here. We a had a lot of people from what we call the ‘one tank away’ as well as people from all over the country (and beyond).”
Reservations at Boyne in northern Michigan are “on par” with past years, with no change in the average 2.5-day length of stay, spokeswoman Erin Ernst said. A longer booking window in the winter has shortened this spring, perhaps due to rising gas prices, she said.
McCole said tourist destinations farther from big cities could see less traffic if gas prices push higher.
In Kent County, year-to-date hotel revenue is up 15.1% from 2010 and advanced bookings through July are fairly strong, said Janet Korn, vice president of marketing for Experience Grand Rapids. The Church of the Brethren in July will bring 5,500 people to DeVos Place for the summer’s largest convention.
Local hotels report that growth is coming in all of their markets, she said.
“Probably we had farther to climb,” Korn said. “That’s OK because now we’re benefiting from that.
“If there’s a 4% growth in tourism spending, some of that might be captured in the hotels and then food and beverage establishments would be first in line to benefit from that as well. If that (extra spending) equates to more people, then cultural attractions will also benefit.”