- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2006

High gasoline prices aren’t stopping Washington-area residents from hitting the road this Memorial Day.

A gallon of regular gas may cost 86 cents more this year than last year, but tourism officials expect just as much traffic — in some instances, more — as last year as drivers flock to area beaches to kick off the unofficial start of summer.

“The fact is that most people are still choosing to travel,” AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman Lon Anderson said. “Gas prices are having an impact, it’s causing them to change what they’re doing, but it’s not stopping many people from traveling.”

The motorist group predicts 452,900 Washington-area residents will drive 50 miles or more to their destinations this weekend, up 1.49 percent from last year. Although the cost of gas has fallen in the past week, an extra $25 to $50 is enough to cause some travelers to cut their trips short by a day or so, Mr. Anderson said.

High gas prices could actually boost business at local beaches, state tourism officials point out.

“In many cases, East Coast destinations such as Virginia Beach sometimes benefit because people who ordinarily take longer drives may consider Virginia Beach when they otherwise would not have,” said Ron Kuhlman, director of tourism marketing and sales for the beach.

Last summer, the D.C. region was the beach’s biggest market, accounting for 16.3 percent of visitors, he said. Virginia Beach is about 200 miles south of Washington.

“Right now, I have not heard anything from the hotels that would indicate business is soft this weekend,” Mr. Kuhlman said.

Among the beach’s new attractions, he said, is the second annual Patriotic Festival, featuring a performance by Lynyrd Skynyrd. In addition, Carrie Underwood of “American Idol” fame will perform.

Across the river — and the Bay, for that matter — Maryland expects a 3 percent climb in visitors this holiday weekend. At Ocean City, town spokeswoman Donna Abbott said some 200,000 tourists make for a typical Memorial Day Weekend crowd.

“We are a little more weather-dependent on this holiday weekend. Even though Memorial Day weekend marks the official summer travel season, until the kids get out of school we’re not at the peak time yet. This is one of those weekends where people look at the forecast and decide, ‘Are we going to the beach or not going to the beach?’” Ms. Abbott said.

“I’d say the forecast has ‘beach’ written all over it.”

Aside from scattered showers and possible thunderstorms this afternoon, the National Weather Service is calling for a mostly sunny weekend, with a high of 79 degrees tomorrow and 70 degrees on both Sunday and Monday.

Most visitors to Ocean City, 150 miles east of Washington, come from Maryland and the Washington suburbs, she said.

Ms. Abbott said the town is a few weeks away from finishing construction on a park where visitors can watch the sunset. A 12-story Hilton resort is another new addition.

Carolyn McCormick, managing director of the Outer Banks Visitor’s Bureau, said she expects a successful weekend but acknowledged high gas prices might hurt spending.

“Gas prices across the board concern everybody in the tourism industry,” she said, adding that the area’s free public access to the beach makes it “still a very attractive, affordable beach” regardless of household income level.

Ms. McCormick called this “a banner year” for soft-shell crabs and other local seafood, noting the abundance will cut down on prices.

Maryland and Virginia transportation officials are bracing for the seasonal uptick in traffic by opening high-occupancy lanes and suspending construction activities.

The Maryland Transportation Authority will lift all construction-related lane closures at toll facilities from noon today to 9 a.m. Tuesday. Officials advise those crossing the historically clogged Bay Bridge to travel during off-peak travel hours, such as prior to noon or after 10 p.m. today and before 11 a.m. or after 10 p.m. Monday.

The Virginia Department of Transportation is opening all temporarily closed lanes also from noon today until Tuesday. In addition, HOV lanes going southbound on I-95/I-395 will remain open from that time until 6 p.m. Sunday. Weekend construction at the Springfield Mixing Bowl will not take place this weekend.

For those visiting Virginia Beach and the Outer Banks, VDOT recommends avoiding the Hampton Roads Bridge Tunnel and using the I-664 Monitor Merrimac Memorial Bridge Tunnel instead. Though the distance is longer, the tunnel is less traveled.

Ms. McCormick recommends visitors to the Outer Banks avoid traffic by driving through Elizabeth City.

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