Could gas prices help local tourist trade?

SANDUSKY Shorter car trips and vacations closer to home are likely to be on the itinerary for many A
Annie Zelm
May 24, 2010

SANDUSKY

Shorter car trips and vacations closer to home are likely to be on the itinerary for many Americans this year as prices at the pump continue to climb.

Many managers of local hotels and tourist attractions say this outlook could actually work to their advantage -- but others aren't so sure.

"If anything, it's probably to our benefit, because people are less likely to take an airplane trip to Florida and more likely to take a car trip here," said Jill Bauer, spokeswoman for the Sandusky-Erie County Visitors Convention Bureau. "We're more of a car destination, and we're within a 300 to 400 mile radius of a large percentage of the population."

Approximately nine million trips are made to Erie County each year, and in 2005 alone, tourism brought in more than $1.75 billion to the area, according to the most recent study available from the Ohio Division of Travel and Tourism.

Ohio's current average fuel price is $3.31, slightly below the national average of $3.36, according to AAA's fuel gauge report.

Gas prices around Sandusky were in the $3.26-$3.29 range, according to prices posted Saturday at area gas stations.

AAA spokeswoman Amanda Graven said fuel prices might not cause travelers to cancel vacation plans, but they might decide to re-route them.

"Only time will tell what we see, but spring break was still very busy with traveling," she said. "We do expect if (fuel) does hit $3.50 a gallon, which it may well do, consumers will cut back drastically on their spending."

Cedar Point spokesman Bryan Edwards said he is well aware of the fuel factor, but remains optimistic for a successful season.

"We've added a lot of attractions this year, a lot of family-friendly rides, so I think we're a more attractive alternative to maybe some longer-distance places," he said. "It's not only family-friendly, but it's budget-friendly as well."

Edwards said he hopes the tax rebates being issued as part of the federal stimulus package will encourage more families to purchase season passes -- which can provide family fun for an entire summer for less than the amount of one individual's refund check.

As fuel prices rose in recent years, Edwards said, he's noticed more guests coming from a broader market, including Chicago, Pennsylvania and the East Coast.

He said the park's prices are actually $1 to $2 lower today than they were in 2003 and 2005, and they plan to continue offering discounts through Pepsi, Meijer, AAA and Discount Drug Mart.

Managers of hotels and resorts say they're staying hopeful and expect their booking numbers will be on par with previous years.

Kalahari Resort spokewoman Shannon McCarthy said although the staff is prepared for a busy summer, they realize higher gas prices might keep some potential guests at home.

"We hope Ohioans will realize that some of the greatest attractions in the U.S., including the nation's largest indoor waterpark, are right here in their own backyard," McCarthy said.

Patty Ward, general manager at Howard Johnson Express on Cleveland Road, said it may be too early to forecast this season's success, but the hotel did not feel any impact when fuel prices started rising several years ago.

"We were just as full as we'd always been," she said.

LaQuinta Inn general manager Drew Schaeffer said he believes the overall economic downturn will hit hotels harder than fuel prices alone.

"I think (fuel prices) will affect us, but the biggest thing is the economy and the loss of jobs," Schaeffer said. "Most Cedar Point business comes from Michigan, and they're in the same boat we're in as far as factories and laying people off."

Fuel prices have also hit harbors, keeping more boats at bay.

"We're pretty concerned," said Mary Lou Madson, who co-owns the Bay Harbor Marina in Townsend Township with her husband, Chris. "(Prices) hit over $3 last year, so I think (boaters) won't be going as far."

Madson said many of the boaters who typically travel from the small marina into downtown Sandusky might stay closer to the bay instead. She said the marina lost one regular boater last year due to higher fuel prices.

"It cost us $60 (in fuel) just to go downtown and back in our boat from the harbor," she said. "I think people are maybe going to sit out in the bay and raft off, just enjoy the people they're with, instead of going very far."

Cindy Brody, manager of Cold Creek Trout Camp on Venice Road, said prices will "absolutely" have an impact.

"I think the boaters are going to have a hard time," she said. "I'm hearing $5 a gallon for boaters, and people with RVs, hopefully they'll save money on hotels, so that will be good for us."

About half of the marina's 28 docks are now occupied with year-round boaters, she said, but how many of those plan to take their boats out remains to be seen.

"Hopefully, it'll be a good summer," she said, "but it's not looking real good."

Huron resident Ken Oblender said he planned to travel to West Virginia with his family, but he's reconsidering after spending more than $300 for a round trip to Florida in January.

"I think it'll be $4 by the end of July," Oblender said. "It's just getting so expensive for everyone ... we're talking about camping, staying closer to home and going to Wellington," he said. "Everybody's trying to make every dollar count, and I don't see it getting better anytime soon."

Jean Haer, of Castalia, said she and her husband had hoped to purchase a motor home to travel now that both are retired, but with today's prices, "that's probably out of the question," she said.

"It would be good if they'd just bring the price of diesel down," she said. "It's affecting everything."