- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Area beaches recorded their largest Memorial Day weekend crowds in recent memory, buoyed by good weather and high gas prices, which likely kept beach-goers on short leashes when making vacation plans.

The unofficial kickoff to summer drew about 260,000 tourists to Ocean City over the weekend, according to the town’s department of tourism. The Memorial Day weekend crowd hasn’t been that big since 1994, said department spokeswoman Donna Abbott.

“Spring was a little cooler than usual in the Mid-Atlantic area. I think there was a pent-up demand for a beach weekend,” Ms. Abbott said.

AAA Mid-Atlantic estimated last week that about 518,400 Washington-area residents, about 11 percent of the population — would travel 50 miles or more during the holiday weekend, a 2 percent increase from last year. About 85 percent of that group was expected to travel by car.

The region’s beaches — Ocean City, the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and Delaware shore — got some of those travelers. Beach officials attributed the strong weekend to a combination of good weather and high fuel prices.

Temperatures were in the 80s at the beach and there was no rain, for the most part.

When gasoline prices are high — an average of $3.13 in the Washington area, up from $2.97 a year ago, according to AAA — the beaches typically draw more visitors from nearby destinations, because vacationers don’t want to drive too far.

“The weather was the key. The gas prices, or the decision to stay closer to home, added to it,” said Carol Everhart, president and chief executive officer of the Rehoboth Beach-Dewey Beach Chamber of Commerce in Delaware.

It was a “Goldilocks weekend” there, she said. “It was just right — not too hot, not too cold.”

“All indicators are that it was a record-breaking Memorial Day weekend. We had what amounted to a full-blown summer weekend,” Ms. Everhart said, adding that exact figures won’t be available for about a month.

She based her estimate on hotel occupancy and traffic.

The number of travelers on the Chesapeake Expressway in Virginia into the Outer Banks was up about 7 percent each day over the weekend, suggesting visitation to the Outer Banks was up as well.

“It was probably the best weekend we’ve seen over the last 10 years,” said Carolyn McCormick, managing director of the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau, considering the traffic figures and hotel occupancy.

Memorial Day attendance is largely dependent on the weather, more so than other summer holiday weekends, such as July 4.

“Until the kids are out of school and before summer travel starts in earnest, this is one of the more last-minute decisions to go,” Ms. Abbott said. “The weather has not always cooperated.”

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