Mid-Atlantic resorts are hoping gas prices spiraling toward $4 a gallon and a cooling economy won't keep vacationers at home this summer — but they're bracing for shorter stays and less spending on restaurants and entertainment while people holiday.
"People are staying less time," said innkeeper Vicki Barrett, who runs a six-room bed and breakfast in Ocean City. "They're not staying for five days or seven days — they're staying for two days or three days."
Along the beaches of Maryland and Delaware, and at other resorts that rely on summertime traffic, this summer is a big question. Some say business will go down as people cut vacation spending, while others are hoping the weak dollar and high gas prices will keep summer travelers closer to home.
"People are starting to really watch those gas prices," said Jason Lake of Clarksburg, W.Va., enjoying a one-week honeymoon he wasn't about to pass up because of economic worries. But concern about gas costs prompted Lake to choose a more fuel-efficient way to travel.
"We did bring the car instead of the truck this year. Usually, we like to travel in the truck more. But other than that, we didn't change any plans," Lake said.
His new wife, Melissa Lake, added with a laugh: "We just got a lot of wedding money — that helps."
Maryland tourism officials say they're targeting more vacationers from neighboring states such as West Virginia and Pennsylvania this year. The theme of some ads going up this summer: "Pretty. Close."
"They always come out with these reports that when gas hits X, people will stop traveling. We just don't see that," said Margot Amelia, executive director of the Maryland Office of Tourism.
Amelia predicted that Mid-Atlantic resorts would benefit if anyone changes travel plans, because the region will look more attractive than trekking to Florida or the Carolinas for a beach trip.
"It's probably those long-haul trips that will go. People will travel two hours from home, and that bodes very well for us," she said.
An annual travel survey released earlier this month by AAA Mid-Atlantic put a day of vacation in Maryland at $258 for fuel, lodging and food — slightly above the national average of $244 a day but far below a day in New York City ($606) or Miami ($370).
But tourism workers are still a little worried. In Rehoboth Beach, Del., innkeepers are advertising free gas cards with a reservation, or free nights with a booking.
"Reservations seem to be coming in steadily — but I think people are taking shorter trips," said Andy Dorosky, owner of the Royal Rose Inn in Rehoboth Beach, where vacationers get a free third night if they pay for two.
"We're just trying to be proactive going into this summer" and attract business, Dorosky said.
Tourism workers say they may be hurt more by higher gas prices than their guests. That's because restaurants and hotels will be pressured not to raise prices despite higher prices for food and their own energy bills.
"The concern would be that all our costs are going up, too — food, heating — and if our reservations fall off, we're not really in a position to raise rates," said Mike Bell, owner of the Good Timber Bed & Breakfast in Oakland, Md., near Deep Creek Lake in western Maryland.
Back in Ocean City, Barrett and her husband aren't seeing fewer reservations at their Inn On The Ocean. They also hold luncheons and weddings at the historic inn to boost revenues, and they say they're hearing from guests who want to stay closer to home this year.
"When you look at half a tank, it's, what, $50? So we're talking about $100. Where else are you going to go for that?" Charlie Barrett said.
But Charlie Barrett added that vacationers are more budget-minded this year.
"I think they may not go out to the higher-priced restaurants as much," he said.
Barrett and his fellow tourism promoters may be happy to hear several early season vacationers on Ocean City's beaches interviewed recently said they didn't want economic worries to impede their holidays.
"There's no way I'm going to say, 'We're not going on vacation because gas prices are so high,'" said Lynn Green of Willow Grove, Pa., relaxing recently in a beach chair near Ocean City's boardwalk. "I think people work so hard all year, they're so stressed. The higher gas prices, that's just part of taking a vacation."
Others said they were pinching pennies in other areas so they could still afford to take vacations. Patrick Lee, a retired operating engineer from Long Island, N.Y., came to Ocean City to golf for a few days. But he said he's cutting back so he can afford to golf this fall in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
"It costs a lot more to travel," said Lee, 69. "With gas prices, everything costs more. We're still here, but yes, we feel it."