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Hard times: Tourists find ways to save money, enjoy local attractions

Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series of stories about how the recession has affected the lives of Northern Shenandoah Valley residents.

By Ben Orcutt -- borcutt@nvdaily.com

Tim Dore's family always wanted to travel on Skyline Drive.

This summer, the Dores, of Butler, N.J., are taking advantage of cheaper gas prices to motor along the 105-mile scenic parkway on their way to Pigeon Forge, Tenn.

"How we learned about this highway was on the Travel Channel, about how it was built and designed, and that's what drew us," says Lisa Dore, as she, her husband and their 18-year-old daughter, Colleen, and her friend, Allie Lowndes, 17, took a break on from their trip at Big Meadows.

According to AAA Mid-Atlantic, gas prices averaged $2.54 per gallon nationally for the week of July 12, down $1.56 from last year.

Mrs. Dore, 51, says the family also is saving money in other ways on their journey, which also will include a stop in Lynchburg, where their daughter plans to enroll this fall as a freshman at Lynchburg College.

"Pack a lot of food," she says. "Go to the grocery store instead of stopping to eat."

While the sagging economy is having an impact on tourism throughout the Northern Shenandoah Valley, the good news is that travelers from across the country and nearby are still making the area a destination, albeit more frugally.

"The valley historically is a driving destination, and because we're strategically located to D.C., Northern Virginia and so much of the country's population, I think people are still making the drive to the valley because it's a nice escape from city life," says Brian Ososky, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Travel Association, which is based in New Market. "At the same time, folks that live in the valley, we've found, are staying closer to home and sort of rediscovering what's here in their own backyard."

"The whole idea of the staycation has come into play," adds Ososky, who says the concept became popular when gas prices approached $4 a gallon last summer.

"We've talked to a number of our larger attractions throughout the valley and found that their admission [numbers] had actually gone up," Ososky says. "And when you took a closer look at the ZIP codes, we found a lot of them were local and regional visitors staying closer to home."

***

That's the case for the Louque family, of Winchester, who own a house at Bryce Resort in Basye.

"Normally we would also probably go to Outer Banks or do something like that in the summer, but now we're just coming down here," says Beth Louque, 40, who recently made the trip to Bryce with her husband, Don, 41, and their two children, Samantha, 11, and Joe, 7.

"So we're not doing any extra vacation at all. We're just coming to our house down here," Mrs. Louque says. "This is wonderful and lots of good friends down here."

Amie Brewer, 36, and her two girls, Samantha, 5, and Shelby, 2, of Fredericksburg, take advantage of the Bryce home owned by Brewer's mother, Sandy LeBrun-Evans, and her husband, Lynwood Evans, also of Fredericksburg.

"We're here because we don't have to spend any money," Brewer says.

She says the group also saves money by packing lunches and limiting themselves to outdoor activities.

LeBrun-Evans, 62, says she and husband are grateful they have a home at Bryce they can retreat to in light of the poor economy.

"We just recently retired, and, of course, the stock market wasn't very kind to us, so we're trying to watch what we do," LeBrun-Evans says. "We've cut majorly eating out and just a lot of things that we would normally do."

***

Jennifer Keck, director of tourism for Front Royal, says travelers are becoming more creative with how they spend their money.

"I'm seeing that people are traveling mid-week. They're taking their week off, but they're not going far away," Keck says. "They're staying at home and taking a couple of overnight trips mid-week when prices are cheaper. ... I know a lot of the [local bed and breakfasts] have been busy that I'm in contact with. They've been busy and booked up on the weekends, so I think that's a good sign."

Martha Bogle, superintendent of Shenandoah National Park, one of the top tourist attractions in the state, agrees with Keck that tourists are still visiting the area, but are altering their spending habits.

"Our visitation to our lodges is down significantly, and part of that is probably people are tightening their belts and figuring out cheaper ways to take vacations and camping rather than staying in the lodges," Bogle says.

Much of the visitation at the park comes from Northern Virginia and adjacent communities, Bogle says.

"I think well over half of our visitors come from the local areas, so certainly our visitation is somewhat weather-dependent. But, we are seeing more and more people from the local area come and enjoy the park."

To help encourage visitation, Shenandoah National Park is offering free entrance admission weekends today and Sunday and Aug. 15-16.

"Getting people out to national parks will drive them through our local communities, and that should then have an impact on their local community economics as well," says Karen Beck-Herzog, a management assistant at Shenandoah National Park who handles public affairs.

The number of visitors entering the park at Front Royal is up about 5 percent over last year, according to Beck-Herzog. Last year, 359,266 visitors gained entry to the park at Front Royal, which was nearly a 4 percent decrease from 2007, Beck-Herzog says. The total number of visitors to the park last year was 1,082,840, she says.

"For every dollar spent at Shenandoah National Park, it generates $4 in adjacent local communities," Bogle says. "One of the things we can't do as the National Park Service is we can't advertise. We can't market ourselves. So we depend on the local communities, the local tourism entities to market for us."

Unfortunately for the industry, the current economic climate has resulted in many local governments slashing their tourism budgets, Ososky says.

"Tax revenues aren't coming in and the budgets get squeezed. A lot of departments are affected, and tourism is pretty near to the top of the list," Ososky says.

The Virginia Tourism Corp. has regularly released figures that for every dollar spent in tourism marketing and promotion, there is a return of $5, Ososky says. "Well if you cut tourism spending, then you cut tourism promotion. You cut that and that 5-to-1 starts to be diminished, and the tax base from the visitors starts to diminish and, yeah, the quality of life for [area residents] is certainly affected by it."

***

Kenneth Price, 77, and his wife, Joe, 74, of Staunton, say riding their trike on Skyline Drive is enjoyable and affordable.

"We just enjoy coming up here because it is economical, and if we decide to eat at one of the restaurants, it's not that expensive," Mrs. Price says. "It's beautiful and relaxing and, if we want to, we can bring a picnic."

Andrew and Darbi Simon, both 36, traveled from their home in Connecticut to enjoy a camping vacation at Shenandoah National Park with their three children, Sydney, 6, Valerie, 4, and Braden, 3.

"We've come to Shenandoah quite a few years, and now we're bringing the kids," Mrs. Simon says, adding that the troubling economy has affected their vacation plans.

"I think, yes, it has," she says. "Definitely driving and not flying and staying somewhere. That we can probably do things a little bit less expensive."

Natalie Wills, executive director of the Winchester-Frederick County Convention Visitors Bureau, and "Shenandoah" Susie Hill, director of economic development and tourism for Shenandoah County, agree that travelers are making an effort to be more frugal.

"Our gift-shop sales haven't been what we've liked for them to be," Wills says. "I think they're being a lot more cautious on how they're spending their money and they're definitely spending a little more time in our center, carefully planning out what they're gonna do. They're not quite as impulsive because they only have so much time and so much money to spend. They're being much more selective."

Hill is seeing a similar trend.

"Our hotels are holding their own, and that's interesting because we have a lot of new product on board," she says. "So that means that slice of the pie gets smaller and smaller the more products we have on line. Still, in light of that, our occupancies have not been as off as we originally anticipated."

Hill agrees that more tourists are staying closer to home.

"What's interesting is even before this economic downturn, 50 percent of the valley visitors did already come from someplace else in Virginia," Hill says. "So Virginians have always represented a great, large percentage of our visitors. But I would say that that has even grown more so."

***

Greg and Julie Ridenour, a young couple from Perry, Ohio, are staying at the hotel room his company has rented for him while the firm remodels a Waffle House in Winchester.

"We always are trying to do economical things because we have a big family," Mrs. Ridenour says. "I pack most of our food before we leave and our drinks and what not, so that when we are out, we don't have to go out to eat too much, which probably isn't good for the restaurants."

Mrs. Ridenour says this trip will be an opportunity for their boys, Joseph, 8, and Christian, 2, to see some area Civil War sites.

"I want to walk the battlefields and the trails," Ridenour adds. "I told [my wife] when I was down here working, it seemed like every exit I got off, I [saw] the signs for Civil War trails. I told her next time I come down, I should bring [her] and the kids and we'll go see the battlefields and take a walk on the trails."

Lower gas prices have been a plus for the Ridenours.

"The gas affects, I think, a lot of it, so it gives you a little more money to spend on other things and spend money at shops instead of in the tank," Ridenour says.

For some, however, pleasure travel is out of the question for now.

Out of work for nearly two years, Jeff Robinson, 44, of Winchester, says the economy has eliminated his vacation options.

"Oh, it's just wiped 'em out, basically," Robinson says. "I do day trips. I just don't go anywhere anymore or hardly at all. [I] stay in the area."

* Next: For some, recession is no problem.




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