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No break this spring at the gas pump

Posted: April 21, 2011 - 8:37pm  |  Updated: April 22, 2011 - 7:07am
FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2010 file photo, a woman walks past the front entrance to Marble House mansion, in Newport, R.I. The Gilded Age mansions of Newport typically draw 800,000 visitors a year to marvel at their seaside opulence and fantasize about life as one of the fabulously rich. But a 28 percent drop-off in business since March 1, 2011, has prompted the group that runs the mansions to offer a $5 gas rebate to appeal to those with real-world concerns about spiking fuel prices.  (AP Photo/Steven Senne, file)   Steven Senne
Steven Senne
FILE - In this Nov. 19, 2010 file photo, a woman walks past the front entrance to Marble House mansion, in Newport, R.I. The Gilded Age mansions of Newport typically draw 800,000 visitors a year to marvel at their seaside opulence and fantasize about life as one of the fabulously rich. But a 28 percent drop-off in business since March 1, 2011, has prompted the group that runs the mansions to offer a $5 gas rebate to appeal to those with real-world concerns about spiking fuel prices. (AP Photo/Steven Senne, file)

With gas prices above $4 in some states, Americans are canceling spring break plans and rethinking summer vacation, and some tourist destinations are offering gas vouchers of as much as $50 to talk people out of giving up and staying home.

At Mount Rushmore, only about 37,000 people decided in March that seeing the four granite-etched presidential sculptures was worth the trip, down from about 43,000 a year before.

At the Grand Canyon, a marketing executive for one company that offers sweeping helicopter vistas says 10 percent fewer people than last year are driving up and booking tours. The company is counting on international tourists to make up the rest.

And along the Rhode Island coast, where 800,000 people a year show up to gawk at the opulence of Gilded Age mansions, it’s even worse — business is off 30 percent just since the beginning of March.

Memorial Day is still five weeks away, and summer doesn’t officially start for two months. This year, anxiety over high gas prices — and whether the family vacation will bust the family budget — has come early.

“I can’t go anywhere because I can’t afford it,” said Greg Sensing, who works in admissions for the University of Maryland. “It’s kind of nice to take a road trip, to get in the car, you see the country, and now why bother doing it?”

The gas jitters have much broader implications than how many people show up to take pictures of Bryce Canyon, Mount Rainier or the Everglades. Gas prices are closely tied to the health of the overall economy.

A gallon of gas costs an average of $3.84 in the United States, almost a full dollar more than a year ago. The average is above $4 in six states: $4.52 in Hawaii, $4.21 in California, $4.18 in Alaska, $4.11 in Connecticut, $4.08 in Illinois and $4.05 in New York.

It’s too early to tell how much of a toll gas prices will take on the summer travel season. The jitters have come so early that AAA hasn’t even put out its summer travel forecast yet.

But there are already signs that the eye-popping prices at the pump are changing Americans’ behavior. In Oklahoma, where gas is a relatively cheap $3.69 per gallon, AAA says it’s getting a lot more calls from people who are out of gas on the highway. National demand for gasoline, which should be rising this time of year, is falling instead.

Some tourist destinations are worried people won’t bother piling the family into the car at all.

Branson, Mo., the Ozark Mountains hotspot that draws people from hundreds of miles away to tour caverns, frolic in amusement parks and see live entertainment, is offering a discount card worth $50 in gas starting in June.

The Preservation Society of Newport County, R.I., which runs several of the Rhode Island mansions, is offering $5 back to anyone who buys two $24.50 tickets to two mansions and shows their car registration.

Lake George, a resort village in the New York Adirondacks, hopes to capitalize on being an easy drive away from New York and Montreal. “We’re in a good position for a ‘staycation’ when people don’t want to drive farther,” said Luisa Craige-Sherman, head of the visitors bureau.

Among the deals available there: A “Spring Gas Buster” package at the Fort William Henry Hotel, which includes a $20 gas card and buy-one-get-one dinner.

Bill Pott, owner of Jellystone Park Camp Resort in Cave City, Ky., near Mammoth Cave National Park, says he’s had a strong spring season so far, but he’s offering an informal discount to help folks cover their travel costs: Stay three nights in a $70-a-night cabin, and he’ll discount your bill $40 to pay for a tank of gas.

“Most people are driving three or four hours to get here, and I can’t do a thing about national fuel prices or the economy, but I can help the kids have a good spring break,” he said.

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