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Costlier Gas May Trip Up Travel Plans

May 02, 1996|NANCY RIVERA BROOKS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the direction of gasoline prices resembling a swift hike up the side of Mt. Baldy, tourism industry executives are fretting that summer vacationers might alter or cancel their plans, particularly if rubber tires are involved.

Nearly half of 1,000 U.S. adults surveyed over the weekend said that higher gas prices would cause them to downshift their travel plans, the Travel Industry Assn. of America, a Washington-based trade group, said Wednesday.

But the Automobile Club of Southern California and other regional travel industry representatives said they have not yet seen any changes in travel plans for Memorial Day weekend, the traditional opening of the summer travel season, or beyond.

Industry representatives say the hope is that gasoline prices will stabilize before summertime and that travelers will realize that even a long car trip at higher gas prices will not cost that much more.

Gasoline for a long trip by car or recreational vehicle might cost $15 or $20 more--not enough to buy admission for one child to Disneyland. And a short jaunt of 200 miles round trip might run $6 or so higher, about the price of McDonald's Happy Meals for a family of four.

"We are confident that Americans will still take vacations, but any reduction in disposable income--whether it's spent at the pump or indirectly due to higher gas prices--means less spending on travel and tourism," said William Norman, president of the Travel Industry Assn. of America.

"What this gas hike means to traveling Americans is maybe $15 more per vacation," Norman said. "But we're on the verge of the busiest travel season, and any kind of panic by the consumer will have a huge impact on the nation's bottom line."

The trade group found that 22% of those surveyed said they would take fewer trips, that 19% planned shorter trips and that 14% said they would spend less money on such things as restaurants, hotels and shopping. A total of 47% said that higher gasoline prices would not cause them to change travel plans.

The strong reaction may be nothing more than the immediate emotional response to the rapid run-up of prices, said Shawn Flaherty, spokeswoman for the travel group. "We think they'll come to their senses," she said.

So far, Southern California tourism watchers say, the gasoline price surge has not hurt an industry that is finally feeling perky again. Hotel occupancy and visitor counts are up in Los Angeles and Orange counties this year, and those come on top of a surprisingly healthy 1995.

Emmett Steed, general manager of the Red Lion Hotel in Costa Mesa, said he expects higher gasoline prices to have some effect, "but it's hard to say how much. . . . It would take something major like an earthquake or riot to slow things significantly."

"We haven't seen our members coming back to us and saying: 'I would like to revise my trip,' " said Jeffrey Spring, spokesman for the Automobile Club of Southern California. "They may change some aspects of their trip--they may be going to cheaper restaurants or they may cut out some side trips--but they're still planning on taking their vacations."

Carol Martinez, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, said tourists are experiencing "the gasoline equivalent of sticker shock."

"We're thinking that this won't affect the vacation traveler, but it might affect weekend trips," Martinez said.

Elaine Cali, spokeswoman for the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor and Convention Bureau, noted that 80% of the people who travel within California are Californians, and that "Californians more than most are attached to their cars and are used to paying whatever it takes."

Times staff writer Marla Dickerson in Orange County contributed to this report.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

On the Road Again

Although visitors to Los Angeles prefer to come by airplane, vacationers nationwide would rather travel by car.

U.S. TRIPS

Breakdown of the 810 million pleasure trips made in 1995:

Auto, truck or RV: 78%

Plane: 17%

Bus: 3%

Other: 2%

TRAVELERS TO LOS ANGELES

Breakdown of the 22.2 million overnight visitors to Los Angeles in 1994:

Plane: 55%

Auto, truck or RV: 43%

Other: 2%

Note: About 75% of the overnight visitors to Los Angeles are on leisure trips, with the remaining on business.

Sources: Travel Industry Assn., Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau

Researched by JENNIFER OLDHAM / Los Angeles Times

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