- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 21, 2009

A rebound in Washington-area travel over the Memorial Day weekend could be a sign the nation is recovering from its economic crisis, according to AAA officials.

AAA Mid-Atlantic predicts that 730,000 D.C. area residents will travel at least 50 miles during the holiday period, a 4 percent increase from last year, when high gas prices persuaded many residents to put the brakes on holiday travel. About 32.4 million people will be traveling nationwide, a 1.5 percent increase, the automobile association predicts.

AAA officials say lower gas prices, better hotel and rental bargains, and higher consumer confidence contribute to increased travel.

“Despite all the economic turmoil, we’ve got some very bright signs,” said Lon Anderson, AAA-Mid Atlantic director for government and public affairs. “After a long winter of rising unemployment, falling housing values, evaporating 401(k)s … many Americans are looking for a break.”

About 46,000 area residents will be traveling by air, a 6 percent increase from last year. That’s compared with 2.1 million people who will travel by air nationwide, a 1.5 percent decrease from 2008.

State officials are confident that the uptick in holiday travelers could also be a sign that the crippling recession, which started in December 2007 and is responsible for eliminating more than 5 million jobs nationwide, is in its last throes.

“Travel is very much connected to consumer confidence,” said Margot Amelia, executive director of the Maryland Office of Tourism. “Travel is important to the American psyche, and if people are thinking about traveling, then perhaps they are thinking this is the beginning of the end in terms of the recession.”

A decrease in fuel prices across the board has been the key factor for more travelers. Last year, holiday travelers paid an average $3.81 for a gallon of unleaded gasoline, and $4.14 for premium grade. This year, that price is down almost 50 percent, about $2.29 a gallon in the Washington area, and $2.31 nationally, although prices have increased on average 25 cents per gallon in recent weeks.

An increase in air travel can also be attributed to lower fares. AAA estimates that passengers will pay on average $176 a ticket, a 4 percent decrease from last year.

Representatives from the area’s top tourism destinations are also seeing signs of optimism. In Maryland’s vacation hot spot, Ocean City, Mayor Richard W. Meehan said that in April the city saw a record number of visitors almost every weekend. Last weekend, for example, the city had 230,000 visitors, an increase of 30,000 over the same time last year, Mr. Meehan said.

“The number of visitors … this year has increased dramatically,” he said. “That says to me: Let’s get the economy going again.”

Ocean City spokeswoman Donna Abbott said unusually sunny weather during the weekends in April contributed to the record number of visitors.

“People are tired of all the doom and gloom we experienced over the winter, and with gas prices low and the weather beautiful, they’re ready to go out and travel,” she said.

Although this Memorial Day weekend is likely to see more travelers than last year, it will still pale in comparison with what was seen in the years before the recession. In 2007, about 877,000 D.C.-area residents traveled during holiday weekend, an estimated 147,000 more people than AAA projects will travel this year.

“It’s like the canary in the coal mine,” said AAA-Mid Atlantic spokesman John B. Townsend II. “It may be better than last year, but it’s not what we once had, and we have a long way to go, but we hope these numbers are a sign of better times to come.”

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