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Tourist spots bank on close-to-home travelers

Steve Puricelli admits he couldn't have picked a worse day to buy a motel — Sept. 15, 2008. "We were signing the papers when the market was crumbling," he said, recalling the unofficial start to the country's economic nosedive.
Image: Summer Forecast
Motel signs are seen in Lake George, N.Y. Industry experts say family-friendly places with an array of amusement parks, arcades, campsites and recreational attractions, are well-suited to weather the economic downturn.Mike Groll / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Steve Puricelli admits he couldn't have picked a worse day to buy a motel — Sept. 15, 2008.

"We were signing the papers when the market was crumbling," said Puricelli, recalling the day Wall Street took a sharp fall, with the Dow Jones industrial average losing more than 500 points and marking the unofficial start to the country's economic nosedive.

"The timing could have been better, no question about it, but I think it will turn out to be a good investment," Puricelli said during a break from sweeping the sidewalk outside his Lake Motel, located on the main drag in this popular Adirondack tourist destination 50 miles north of Albany.

Puricelli said he's "cautiously optimistic" about the upcoming summer travel season, with reservations for his lakeside motel better than he had expected just a few months ago.

It's an outlook shared by many in the travel and tourist industry, despite a lingering recession and an unemployment rate hovering around 9 percent.

The U.S. Travel Association's annual summer travel forecast predicts a 2.2 percent decline from the summer of 2008 in the number of trips Americans will take from June through August. The Washington-based trade organization for the nation's $740 billion domestic travel industry says an estimated 54 percent of American households plan to take at least one leisure trip this summer, compared to 50 percent last year.

That's a sunnier outlook than an AP-Gfk poll in April that found only 42 percent of Americans planned a summer trip.

"I think we're going to come out OK," said Wendy Northcross, chief executive of the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce. "It's not going to be boom, but it's definitely not going to be bust."

Industry experts say family friendly places such as Cape Cod and Lake George, in the densely populated Northeast and with an array of amusement parks, arcades, campsites and recreational attractions, are well-suited to weather the economic downturn as budget-conscious travelers seek getaways closer to home.

Jan van Harssel, a professor in Niagara University's College of Hospitality and Tourism Management, said attractions such as theme parks, campgrounds and beaches should do well this summer.

"People are careful, people are budgeting, people are rediscovering their backyards," he said. "Niagara Falls used to market itself to places like India. Now it needs to market itself to Pittsburgh and Cleveland."

Twenty-five miles south of Puricelli's motel, in the thoroughbred racing Mecca of Saratoga Springs, those in the city's bread-and-butter tourism business aren't expecting a major drop-off in the number of visitors this summer.

"In spite of the economic downturn, the August bookings seem to be very good," said Kathleen Smith, owner of Saratoga Arms, an upscale hotel where rates range from $350 to $625 a night during the six-week racing season that begins July 29. "Maybe the trip to Paris is too much money but the trip to Saratoga isn't."

Some destinations off the beaten path may see fewer visitors because of the closer-to-home trend this year. Lodging reservations aren't as strong as they usually are at this time of year for Glacier and Yellowstone national parks, said Sarah Lawlor, spokeswoman for the Montana Office of Tourism.

"We're not burying our heads in the sand," she said. "People are bracing that it's not going to be a record year."

But Lawlor also stuck to the optimism theme, pointing to a resurgence in camping and nature-based travel.

"We don't think that we're so off the radar that people couldn't get to us in a day," she said. "Maybe we're returning to the vacations of our youth, where we'll all pile into a station wagon and spend a few weeks at the parks."

With fewer Americans expected to take "long-haul" vacations, tourist areas within a few hours' drive of major population centers are likely to see more short-stay visitors, Cape Cod's Northcross said.

Steve Foster, a British accountant working for an Albany-area company, recently spent the day in Lake George with his wife and parents, who were visiting from England. Foster said he has already made trips to Boston and New York City, and plans to see plenty more of America during his two-year stint in the U.S., while keeping current economic realities in mind.

"It makes you think about doing it a bit cheaper," he said.

Such like-minded travelers combined with what Puricelli considers an improving consumer confidence could result in a better-than-expected summer for some tourist destinations.

"People are feeling better now than they were three months ago," said Puricelli, a 57-year-old former venture capitalist who says he was "happily retired" in Orlando, Fla., when he went into the lodging business with his brother and another motel owner.

"We're actually expecting it to be flat this year, which is an improvement from three months ago, when we expected it to be slow," he said.

"What I'm hearing is that flat is the new up," Northcross said. "If your business is as good as last year, you're really doing all right."

One area of concern for tourism businesses: steep budget cuts in cash-strapped state tourism offices, which typically spend millions on ad campaigns touting attractions to regional and national audiences.

State tourism budgets are taking a hit across the nation, from the $6 million slashed from this year's "I Love NY" campaign to the more than $30 million that could be cut from the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism in the 2010 budget that begins July 1.

"That's not helpful, especially for regions like Cape Cod because we're so dependent on our tourism industry," said Northcross.