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The economy, the mortgage mess, rising unemployment, volatility with gas prices — there are plenty of reasons folks are canceling their vacation plans. One result might be the return of the great American road trip.
By Travel writer
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/12/2009 7:22:25 PM ET 2009-05-12T23:22:25

It’s National Travel and Tourism Week (May 9–17) — and the travel industry wants you to get with the program.

Admit it, you’ve cut back on your vacations, curtailed your business trips and generally opted to stay home more and travel less. In response, the U.S. Travel Association (USTA) would like to remind you that travel and tourism constitute the nation’s fifth-largest industry and that staying home doesn’t do anybody any good at all.

At least that’s the thinking behind the first-ever U.S. Travel Rally Day, which is taking place today, May 12, in 36 cities across the country. The idea is to get workers in the travel industry — tour guides and taxi drivers, housekeepers and hotel executives — to come together in public places to showcase the breadth of the industry and the contribution it makes to the local and national economy. Travel, as they say at USTA, matters.

A lot. According to USTA figures, domestic and international travelers spent $740 billion in the U.S. in 2007, resulting in $115 billion in tax revenue for local, state and federal governments. Take that revenue off the books and every household in the country would have to cough up another $988 in taxes to bridge the gap.

On the job front, travel and tourism employ 7.7 million people and generate $189 billion in payroll. The industry is among the top 10 industries in 48 of the 50 states and is directly or indirectly responsible for one out of eight jobs in the country. (Click here for a state-by-state breakdown of the industry’s impact on spending, tax receipts and employment.)

So you can see why the travel industry wants to get the word out. Travel doesn’t just broaden your horizons; it also supports local businesses, puts food on people’s tables and serves as a $740-billion economic stimulus package. And if rallying the troops can help rally the economy, then I say, rally on.

Hints of better times ahead?
It won’t be easy, of course. Consumers have cut back on travel in the face of massive job losses and mounting mortgage woes. Companies have scaled back due to the “AIG effect” and the fear that any business travel will be seen as frivolous or extravagant. Barring a sudden rebound, USTA estimates that travel expenditures in the U.S. will decline 6.7 percent this year, a loss of $52.4 billion.

On the other hand, a subsequent rally is inevitable. Just as the economy is showing the first tentative signs of recovery — or at least an end to the free-fall — so, too, is travel. Chalk it up to reasonable gas prices, falling airfares or a communal case of cabin fever, but people are starting to move again. Consider:

  • In February (the most recent data available), Americans drove 215 billion miles. While that was still a drop from the year before, it’s the smallest monthly drop (0.9 percent) in more than a year. In fact, if you take away the extra day in February 2008, this year would have actually posted an increase.
  • During the first three months of the year, 43.1 million people visited a unit of the National Park system, an increase of 4 percent over the same period the year before.
  • In April, most major airlines reported higher load factors, a sign that the correlation between demand and capacity is starting to stabilize. Traffic is still falling, mind you, but at least it’s falling at a slower rate than previously.

The new normal: déjà vu all over again
So, perhaps a rally of sorts is already in the works, although another $740-billion bonanza probably isn’t. Instead, it’ll be slow, steady and incremental. Maybe even sustainable, as opposed to the over-the-top expansion we’re now digging out from. Like the dot-com boom, the housing bubble and every other example of irrational exuberance we’ve ever seen, the recent bulking up of the travel industry — more flights! bigger cruise ships! grander resorts! — was simply too good to last.

Maybe it’s part of what some folks are calling “the new normal,” although it may turn out to be closer to the old normal. You know, the type of travel that entails riding a nearby scenic railroad or a taking that local harbor cruise you never have. The kind that involves heading to a national park rather than a theme park or visiting family instead of a foreign country.

Who knows, maybe it’ll even lead to the revival of that one-time icon of travel, the great American road trip. (I hear station wagons are making a comeback.) You know, the kind of trip where you load up the car, hit the road and keep going until you’ve gotten your fill of fresh air, new sights and long days with little or no agenda. Of course, for that sort of travel we’d all need two or three weeks off at a time.

Now, that’s an idea worth rallying around.

Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, drop him an e-mail.

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