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Americans Pack Up for July 4

Many are shelving economic, terrorism concerns for long weekend travel


Neither economic concerns nor terrorist threats stand to interfere with Fourth of July travel plans this year, as an estimated 37 million Americans prepare to descend on theme parks, campgrounds, beaches and resorts over what for many will be a four-day weekend.

Holiday bookings appear not to be affected by the disclosure that the FBI is on heightened alert after intelligence reports indicating that major Independence Day celebrations could be targets of terrorists.

"It's important to keep everything in perspective," said Cheryl Mimura, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Los Angeles, where agents have been contacting organizers of July 4 fireworks shows and festivals to get a handle on crowd estimates and security measures. "It's good, actually, to see that people are getting on with life."

Las Vegas expects 261,000 visitors and 90% of its rooms to be filled--in both cases a 4% increase over last year. Visitors apparently are ignoring a report--dismissed by the FBI--from a man who claimed to have overheard a cell phone discussion naming Las Vegas as a terrorist target on Independence Day.

Likewise on Catalina Island, where hotel rooms are booked solid and people are seemingly paying no attention to an uncorroborated report claiming Al Qaeda operatives were headed there for the long weekend.

"I think people are just finally tired of it all," said Rob Powers, a spokesman for the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority. "They want to get away, get out. And it's a perfect time to celebrate their patriotism too."

With the Fourth of July falling on a Thursday this year, many people are expected to make it a four-day weekend. That is expected to put the Fourth this year behind only Thanksgiving and Memorial Day as the busiest travel weekend, according to the Automobile Assn. of America, edging out Labor Day weekend.

The Auto Club estimates that 36.7 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles July 4-7, up from 36.4 million for the holiday weekend last year.

For the summer, 52% of Americans are planning to take vacations this year, compared with 48% last summer. And many are going whether they can afford to or not.

According to a survey released this week by AmeriDebt, about 40% of this year's summer vacations will be financed with credit cards--and a third of those who plan to use them say they won't be able to pay off the entire amount when they return.

Still, travelers will be spending the same amount or more on their vacations this year, said Wayne Russum, a researcher with Opinion Research Corp., which conducted the survey.

"There seems to be an almost stubborn need for people to take a vacation, regardless of their financial health," Russum said.

Because most July 4 vacationers will be traveling by car or recreational vehicle, including at least 8 million people in the Western states, regional destinations such as San Diego, Palm Springs and Santa Barbara stand to benefit the most, according to the Travel Industry Assn. of America.

Air travel, however, is expected to drop nearly 5% from last Fourth of July weekend, with 4.4 million people planning to take flights. Post-Sept. 11 jitters, airport security hassles and fewer airfare bargains continue to steer people away.

In contrast, RV rentals and campground reservations for the weekend are up 25% and 15% over last year, respectively, as people opt to hit the road on shorter trips that are closer to home.

The country's two largest RV rental companies said they have been sold out for the Fourth of July for months.

"Unless you own an RV, you'll be hard-pressed to find one available now," said Ken Sommer, spokesman for the Recreation Vehicle Industry Assn. in Virginia. "And unless you've planned ahead, you probably won't find a place to park it."

Theme parks, too, are preparing for a busy holiday, with hotels at Walt Disney Co.'s Disneyland Resort in Anaheim sold out for the four-day weekend and nearly booked for the rest of the summer, a reservations agent said.

To keep people coming throughout the summer, Disney last week announced the return of last summer's admissions discounts for California Adventure, which let children ages 9 and under get in free.

Though the FBI won't specify what major celebrations agents will focus on this year in light of the terrorist threats, a recent Washington alert cited high-profile events that are likely to draw large crowds.

Security measures have been increased at theme parks since Sept. 11, and officials said they will keep those measures in place for Fourth of July crowds. Disneyland, for example, has added uniformed and undercover police to patrol the parks, and Knott's Berry Farm and Six Flags Magic Mountain conduct bag checks of all visitors upon entering.

But terrorist threats aren't changing many plans for holiday travel, according to the Travel Industry Assn.

Of those surveyed who said they were cutting back on their trips over the Fourth of July, 19% cited security concerns--down from one-third who were leery of traveling over New Year's.

About 28% said lack of time off work, economic worries or other responsibilities were keeping them home.

On Catalina, where the Fourth of July holiday typically accounts for 15% of total summer business, merchants expressed relief that the weekend still promised to be strong even after the recent threat.

Some hotel workers said several visitors have called to ask about the report, which was widely covered on the news, but they did not choose to cancel their trips. Just four groups canceled their day-trip tickets to Catalina last week on various boat services, according to the island's Chamber of Commerce.

"This is probably the biggest holiday for us, and it's even bigger when it's a four-day weekend," said Joe Turner, who rents tandem bicycles in Avalon. "So to hear we're going to be packed as usual is like music to our ears ... or the ching-ching of the cash register."

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