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Families Rev Up Travel Plans

Summer RV, campsite reservations soar. Patriotism may play role.


Thinking others might have the same idea for a summer vacation this year, Douglas Christ reserved a 32-foot recreational vehicle for his family--back in December. But when he tried to book a campsite at Yosemite National Park for a June vacation, Christ was told he was too late.

"They were full, and I called the very first day they started taking reservations for summer," said Christ, of Irvine. "We did finally find something, but it was outside the park. So much for planning ahead."

Whether because of convenience or comfort, security or newfound patriotism, the country's highways and campgrounds promise to be jammed this summer as families pile into RVs in record numbers and descend on national parks and monuments. Summer rentals of RVs are up 40% over last year, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Assn.

Likewise, the National Assn. of RV Parks and Campgrounds, the trade group representing commercial sites, says reservations are running 46% over last year for June, July and August. What's more, at least half of the summer reservations are coming from people who never have been camping before, said group President Linda Profaizer.

"Clearly, we're in store for a 'see America' summer," she said. "Families want to go, and [traveling in an RV and camping] seem safe, secure and intimate."

Summer travel otherwise is shaping up to be a mixed bag, with airlines cautiously gearing up for a steady increase in passengers by adding flights and cruise lines holding prices at just 7% under last year's--far from the rock-bottom rates they were forced to offer in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11.

Hotel occupancies are expected to be about the same as last summer, although room rates are down 15% at many large chain hotels such as Hilton Hotels Corp., which is predicting summer occupancy at its 2,000 worldwide properties to be about 80%, or about 5 percentage points less than last year.

Drive-to destinations and regional theme parks are bracing for the usual summer crowds; Las Vegas is expecting at least 8.7 million visitors over the summer, and Six Flags Inc., the largest U.S. theme-park operator, reported last month that ticket orders for groups and season passes were rising and that park attendance was rebounding from a post-Sept. 11 drop-off.

This is more evidence that the real action this summer will be with families on the road, a trend that caught on immediately after the terrorist attacks and has since turned otherwise sleepy RV rental agencies and sales dealerships into a tourism bright spot.

After nearly two years of weak performance, the RV industry is showing a much needed rebound, said Scott Stember, an analyst with Sidoti & Co. in New York. Though many dealers were caught with excess inventory as recently as last year, RV shipments to showrooms are rising above year-earlier levels. In January, total shipments of RVs, which include motor homes and trailers that can be towed, rose 11% compared with 2001.

"Demand is quickly outpacing supply," Stember said, adding that he predicts this year could surpass record levels set in 1999, when shipments topped 320,000 units.

Indeed, the stocks of RV manufacturers have been gaining, with Winnebago Industries Inc., Thor Industries Inc., Coachmen Industries Inc. and Monaco Coach Corp. reaching 52-week highs last month. The companies have stepped up production since the beginning of the year.

El Monte RV, one of the country's biggest rental and sales firms, plans to open 10 more outlets by May; the company reported its busiest single booking week for rentals the first week of March. In February, the Santa Fe Springs company saw a 53% increase in revenue, said spokesman Joe Laing, adding that he has since canceled several Internet advertisements because the company cannot keep up with the response.

"What we keep hearing from customers is that this summer, especially, they want control over their vacations," Laing said. "RVing lets them control when they leave, where they go, who goes with them, what they bring. And it's intimate. They're all together, as a family."

Also benefiting from the RV mania this summer will be campgrounds and national and state parks. The National Park Service is forecasting a 15% increase in visitors, and campsites will be difficult to snag, with one official predicting "nothing less than madness" at such places as the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park.

Along with the parks, the National Register of Historic Places plans to offer 20 special tours focusing on America's cultural heritage at various monuments, battlefields and historic sites, responding to an increase in requests for the themed tours. Such interest in history has helped jump-start summer bookings at Dallas-based History America Tours, which will organize 17 trips with historians this year. Owner Pete Brown said one trip, a March Through Georgia tour scheduled for late summer to early fall, already has sold out.

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