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Higher costs will hinder holiday travelers, AAA says, but closer attractions beckon

courtesy photos

For the first time since 2002, Americans plan to drive less over Memorial Day weekend than they did the previous year, according to a AAA study. High gasoline prices and a weak economy are the culprits, the automobile travel group said.

That’s good news for area destinations and attractions from the Poconos to amusement and state parks.

AAA estimates that fewer people, including about 44,485 Wilkes-Barre area residents, will travel at least 50 miles this weekend. That’s a decrease of 2.5 percent from last year’s holiday weekend. AAA said the decline reflects rising costs of gasoline, accommodations and travel in general.

The national average cost of a gallon of regular gasoline rose to a record $3.83 on Thursday, according to a survey of gas stations conducted by AAA. That’s up 44 cents from a month ago and about 71 cents higher than this time last year.

That will likely mean shorter trips for those who plan to travel, according to some travel and tourism officials.

Because many tourist destinations can be reached with a tankful of gas, AAA expects many people may choose to travel locally, instead of greater distances this year. There’s no shortage of destinations in our own back yard and some say it’s possible some forgotten attractions of yesteryear will see a revival.

The four-county region collectively called the Poconos – Carbon, Monroe, Pike and Wayne – are prepared for the influx of travelers, according to the head of the region’s visitors bureau.

“With one-third of the United States population within a three-hour drive of the Pocono Mountains, we stand in a good position to take advantage of this trend,” said Carl Wilgus, executive director of the Pocono Mountains Visitors Bureau.

One AAA official said the rising costs may make people think twice but won’t stop them from traveling this weekend; it will only stop them from traveling far.

“High gas prices are definitely affecting travel plans, yet many people plan to celebrate the arrival of the summer season with a trip,” said Catherine L. Rossi, AAA Mid-Atlantic’s manager of public and government affairs. “Wilkes-Barre area residents and others will still go to the lake or to the shore. Families will find creative ways to compensate for the higher costs of travel.”

Projections for weekend travel for Wilkes-Barre area residents mirror national travel predictions.

More than 12 percent of the country’s population will celebrate the holiday weekend away from home, AAA said in a release. Of those traveling, AAA said, 31.7 million people, or 83 percent, are expected to drive. That’s 1 percent fewer than the 32 million Memorial Day drivers a year ago.

That’s coupled with an expected 0.5 percent decrease in airline travel.

A recent survey by the automobile association found 64 percent of those traveling over Memorial Day weekend plan to stay within 500 miles of home. About 40 percent of travelers surveyed would remain within 250 miles of home.

Michael Chapaloney, spokesman for the state tourism office, said local attractions across the state should see a boost in the number of visitors, especially those destinations that are free or charge a minimal fee.

“We saw gas prices go up last year, yet we set a record for tourism spending and hotel reservations in the state,” Chapaloney said.

Also seeing increases in reservations are state parks, up 11 percent this year compared to 2007, according to. Christine Novak, spokeswoman for the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Whenever gas prices go up or the economy gets rough Pennsylvanians tend to make more day or overnight trips close to home, including state parks, she said.

Traveling alternatives

1. Lakes and rivers

instead of oceans

Forget Wildwood, Ocean City or Rehoboth Beach. Try the beaches along the Delaware River, or at lakes in Hickory Run, Beltzville or Ricketts Glen state parks. While the water might be a bit chilly, the parks offer hiking, picnic areas, and other recreation activities. If you were heading to Atlantic City to do some gambling, save gas and drive to the slot parlors at Mohegan Sun at Pocono Downs in Plains Township or Mount Airy Resort near Mount Pocono.

2. Play catch or watch others get paid to do it

The Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees are home through Sunday taking on the Indianapolis Indians, the Triple-A affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates. If you’re in the mood to drive a bit further, though not much, the Binghamton Mets host the Reading Phillies this weekend.

3. A Grand Canyon

instead of THE Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon in Arizona is quite a popular tourist destination and one that all Americans should see in their lifetime. But the five-hour flight to Las Vegas coupled with a drive nearly as long to the national landmark is a costly endeavor. Try the Pine Creek Gorge – known locally as “The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania” instead. The attraction, about two and one-half hours northwest near Wellsboro, offers breathtaking scenery, hiking, fishing and bike trails.

4. Do Dorney instead

of Disney

While Disney offers rides, a water park and family fun, it also means long waits at the airport and stays in hotels.

Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom near Allentown offers all of that and is among a handful of amusement parks within a few hours’ drive that are cheaper and can be made in a day. Chocolate and rollercoaster lovers will find Hersheypark less than two hours away. Also on the list are Dutch Wonderland in Lancaster and Knoebels in Elysburg, though both are geared toward families with younger children.

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