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Posted May 23, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Tourism officials hopeful for season

By James Heffernan -- jheffernan@nvdaily.com

Last year, runaway gas prices and a crumbling economy kept many would-be travelers at home.

But this year, there are plenty of reasons for tourism officials to be optimistic heading into one of the industry's peak seasons.

AAA Mid-Atlantic estimates that 861,000 Virginians will be traveling at least 50 miles from home this Memorial Day weekend, up nearly 4 percent over the same weekend in 2008. Cheaper air fares, discount lodging, dramatically lower gas prices and pent-up demand are among the driving factors behind the decision, according to the association.

"People feel like they need the break," said Natalie Wills, executive director of the Winchester-Frederick County Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It was a long, depressing winter and they're wanting to get out and do something."

"As Americans, travel is one of our basic rights. We love to do it," added Front Royal Tourism Director Jennifer Keck. "There's some good news with the economy right now, and I think people are saying, 'let's get out and see what's close by.'"

Despite a steady rise in the cost of gasoline in recent weeks, prices at the pump are still nearly $2 less per gallon than they were this time last year, and the number of Virginians traveling by car this weekend is expected to jump 6 percent to 718,000, according to AAA.

"I don't think 10 or 15 cents a gallon will make much of a difference in people's decision making this year," Shenandoah County Tourism Director Susie Hill said.

During normal economic times, about half of all tourists in the Shenandoah Valley are Virginia residents, Hill said. But the valley is also a "drive market," she said, located within a day's drive of two-thirds of the U.S. population.

"Gas prices will definitely help," Keck said. "We're seeing people taking the shorter trips instead of the one-week vacations further away. They're coming for a couple of days, even during the week."

The Winchester-Frederick County visitor center on the campus of Shenandoah University saw nearly 1,400 guests in April, with Fairfax, Leesburg, Charlottesville and Richmond the most popular points of origin.

Still, many travelers are feeling the pinch of the recession, Wills said.

"Visitors are spending a lot more time in our center. They're carefully choosing what they're going to do because they might not be staying quite as long."

Wills said the visitor center is planning to host a tourism fair next month geared toward area residents.

"We highly encourage local folks to come in and see what there is to do," she said.

Stephens City is holding its 16th annual Newtown Heritage Festival this weekend, complete with arts and crafts, food, live music, wagon rides, a parade and more.

"When the weather is nice, it inspires people to come out," Wills said.

Hill said last weekend's re-enactment of the Battle of New Market drew about 5,000 visitors a day, an increase over last year.

AAA Mid-Atlantic does not expect pump prices to average more than $2.50 a gallon this summer. As of Wednesday, the average price in Virginia was $2.24.

Now is also a great time for families who can afford it to consider a vacation, the association said, with discounts on air fares and hotel rooms, shorter lines at tourist attractions and a stronger U.S. dollar.

"Once the economy begins to turn around, we will see a domino effect and the travel industry will begin to rebound," said AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Martha M. Meade.

Wills agreed.

"We are optimistic that not only will we get the staycation people [those vacationing close to home], but also those looking for a day trip, which makes tourism people happy."

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