Vacationers about to set U.S. record

September 04, 1994|By New York Times News Service

Spurred by low air fares, economic confidence and the unshakable lure of the road, Americans are traveling this summer like never before.

Preliminary figures strongly suggest that, from the New Jersey shore to the Las Vegas strip, the number of summer vacationers will set a record.

Even the long-beset airline industry, spurred by a record 89 million passengers in June and July, is headed toward its busiest year ever. And the nation's hotels and motels are reporting their XTC highest occupancy rates since at least the early 1980s.

"For the first time in a long time, you didn't hear that big, loud snap of pocketbooks and wallets being slammed shut," said Jerry Cheske, a spokesman for the Automobile Association of America. "This summer people were spending again."

Almost 16 percent of travel agents had their best summer ever, according to a recent poll conducted by the American Society of Travel Agents, while another 50 percent classified the summer as "very good."

Bookings were 35 percent higher than last summer at Thomas Cook Travel agencies, and 70 percent of the Carlson agencies said summer travel was "significantly" ahead of last year.

Many industry officials attribute the surge to pent-up demand and confidence that the economy is improving, or at least not getting worse.

"Right after the recession, people bought durable goods," said Shawn Flaherty, a spokeswoman for the Travel Industry Association, based in Washington. "Now they decided it was time to take vacations."

Before the season started, the U.S. Travel Data Center projected that this summer there would be 230 million person trips (one person traveling 100 or more miles from home), compared with 220 million last summer. That alone would have been a record, higher even than the 222 million in 1992, when the airlines put on a frenzied half-price sale on domestic tickets.

But the center said Friday that the final tally will probably exceed 230 million.

There are many reasons.

"Instead of putting money into our house, we're living and enjoying our kids," said Gail Hoefer, who works in commercial real estate and was visiting San Francisco the other day with her two young sons.

"We're spending differently," she added. "You change with the times. After the riots, fires and earthquakes, I think people want to get away."

Kevin and Patty Foster and their two children, who live in Newport, R.I., usually take several small trips and one big one during the year, but last year they skipped the big trip. This year they made up for that with a trip to Florida. "The economy is a little stronger," Mr. Foster said. "It's making people feel a little betterabout their prospects."

Low fares offered by discount airlines and specials offered by the major carriers contributed to the surge in air travel.

Bargain prices helped fill 75 percent of airline seats this summer, compared with an annual industry average of 64 percent in recent years, the Air Transport Association said.

The increase in international travel was particularly evident.

International air fares accounted for almost 42 percent of total airline commissions in July, compared with 35 percent last year.

"Our international business grew tremendously this summer," said Christine Santos, branch manager at the Thomas Cook Travel Agency in Braintree, Mass. London and Italy were especially popular destinations, she said.

In the United States, summer vacationers, who typically account for about one-third of all vacation travel during the year, seemed to be everywhere.

Two perennial top attractions, Orlando and Las Vegas, retained their drawing power, helped by a new economy hotel at Walt Disney World and by the new MGM theme park in Las Vegas, a gambling city that is rapidly transforming itself into a family destination as well.

The Gulf Coast cities of Alabama and Mississippi had a big summer, as did San Antonio, the most popular destination in Texas, and Branson, Mo., the Ozark town that continues to draw families and tour groups in record numbers.

In New Jersey, merchants from Ocean City to Cape May have reported a banner summer season. In New York City, tourism has also surged, although an influx of visitors from other countries is a major factor.

The number of people visiting the country's 50 national parks rose 2.5 percent in July compared with the same month last year, to 11.1 million. Use of the overall National Park System, which consists of 365 sites, including the parks, national monuments, historic sites and seashores, rose 2.8 percent in July compared with the same period last year, to 42.8 million visitors.

Overall tourist travel to Florida continued to drop, probably because of fear after 10 foreign visitors were killed in the state from October 1992 to April 1994.

More recently, another fear has held down Florida tourism: travelers have been worried that the coastal towns are swamped with refugees from Cuba. Last Sunday, the Monroe County Tourist Development Council took out advertisements in six Florida newspapers emphasizing that the Florida Keys are open and eager for tourist business.

But the huge number of travelers this summer suggests that Americans who shun a particular city or state go elsewhere, rather than stay home. And some people seem not to care where they are going.

When Northwest Airlines recently offered 300 same-day-return tickets to mystery destinations for $59 ($99 for two), 2,000 people showed up at the airport in Indianapolis hoping to buy them.

Not until flight time a few days later did ticket holders learn whether they were bound for Boston, Miami, San Antonio, Rapid City, N.D., or one of 11 other cities.

One winning couple said it was an inexpensive way to dine out in unusual surroundings.

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