Tourists to county undeterred by gas costs

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The San Diego Union-Tribune

At Budget Rent A Car near Lindbergh Field, the low-mileage SUVs and minivans are as popular as ever.

At SeaWorld, which is opening its biggest attraction in 40 years, big crowds are expected over the weekend.

And at the hotels and motels in Mission Valley, the books are bulging with reservations.

Any fears in the tourism industry over soaring gas prices and the threat of terrorism haven’t made much of an impact in San Diego. Tourism is off to one of its best years ever, and with brisk business anticipated this Memorial Day weekend the prospects for summer seem bright.

“We’ll be sold out this weekend,” said Gayne Kinsey, general manager of the 202-room Quality Resort in Mission Valley. “And our bookings for June, July and August already look strong.”

Although nearly all of his customers arrive by car, Kinsey doesn’t foresee rising gas prices putting a crimp in his business.

“The people who come from three, six or nine hours away will still come here,” he said. “What’s another $20 in gas?”

Seventy percent of San Diego’s tourists arrive by car, yet San Diego was the country’s fourth most popular tourist destination in April, according to the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau. Hotel occupancy was 76 percent during the month, up from 67.5 percent a year ago.

“There were several weekends last summer when hotels were completely sold out throughout the county, and I expect the same will occur this summer,” ConVis President Reint Reinders said.

Rather than fewer driving trips, the Auto Club of Southern California predicts an increase in auto vacations during the Memorial Day weekend and throughout the summer. Spokesman Jeff Spring said the American Automobile Association expects a 2.7 percent increase in travel over the weekend compared with last year.

In reaction to higher gas prices, he said, “We are just seeing people adjust what they’re spending in other ways. When they look at the overall cost of taking a trip — hotels, amusement parks and meals — the change in gas prices is not hugely significant.”

Kim Pappas-Miller of AAA Arizona estimated that gas price hikes might cost a vacationing family $20 more this year on an 800-mile trip.

“So maybe you’ll stop at Starbucks instead of eating eggs Benedict at the Hilton,” she said. “If anything, people are driving more than ever before.”

But visitors seeking relief from the summer heat of Arizona — traditionally a strong source of local tourism — might get hot when they note the higher cost of fuel here.

The Utility Consumers’ Action Network yesterday reported a San Diego County average of $2.38 per gallon for unleaded regular — among the highest costs in the nation — compared with the AAA‘s Arizona average of $2.15.

But gas prices haven’t put a dent in the business of Budget Rent A Car, which is running 10 percent ahead of last year, with summertime bookings also well ahead of last year, according to Susan McGowan, spokeswoman for Cendant Corp., parent of Budget and Avis.

“Traditionally, our business doesn’t drop off when gas prices rise, but traditionally, gas prices have not been this high,” she said. “Still, our business is good, and we don’t see people moving into smaller vehicles because of the cost of gas. The SUVs and minivans are as popular as ever.”

If there is a cloud on the horizon for the tourism business, it would be the threat of terrorism.

“Right now, terrorism is a bigger concern to me than gas prices,” Reinders said. “Time has a way of healing, but then when you see (Attorney General John) Ashcroft on television talking about terrorism concerns, it creates a lot of negative chatter.

“Of course, you never know when terrorism will strike.”

Bob Rauch, director of San Diego State University’s Center for Hospitality & Tourism Research, agreed that terrorism is a bigger worry than gas prices. He’s concerned about large public gatherings such as those at Petco Park, the San Diego County Fair at Del Mar, and other local attractions.

Yet SeaWorld expects some of its biggest crowds this year with tomorrow’s unveiling of its Journey to Atlantis thrill ride and dolphin exhibit. The park has been promoting the unveiling for months.

“We don’t think gas prices or talk of terrorism will have an impact,” said Ed Litrenta, SeaWorld vice president.

Even airlines, whose business can be acutely affected by terrorism threats, have been doing well in recent months in San Diego. During the first quarter this year, Lindbergh Field served 3.6 million passengers, or 7 percent more than a year ago.

The airport has been struggling to regain its pre-2001 passenger volume, but appears on track to meet that goal this year, spokesman Steve Shultz said.

Terry Trippler, a Minneapolis travel consultant, said he doesn’t think the threat of terrorism will affect air traffic.

“When you walked into an airport in October 2001 and saw soldiers with rifles, it was disconcerting,” Trippler said. “Now you walk in and see soldiers with rifles and you find it reassuring.”

Even moves this week by United and American Airlines to raise fuel surcharges by $10 per flight won’t deter people from flying, Trippler said.

“People know what’s going on,” he said. “They go to the gas station and see how prices rise. When airlines raise the fuel surcharge, customers know why and accept it.”

San Diego gasoline prices have fallen about 1 cent per gallon in the past week, and at least one expert believes prices at independent stations could fall further in coming days. But Bob van der Valk, bulk fuels manager for Cosby Oil Co., fears that the planned shutdown of a Shell refinery in Bakersfield at the end of September might keep prices high throughout the year.

Zeta Rosenberg, vice president of the fuels group at ICF Consulting near Washington, D.C., said gasoline markets worldwide will remain tight for the foreseeable future because of high demand and limited production capacity.

But consumer advocates in California say oil companies have intentionally kept refinery capacity limited. The Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights yesterday criticized Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for limiting his response to soaring gas prices to a call for personal conservation.

“The real power lies in preventing the five big (companies) who control 90 percent of the gas supply from closing another refinery that provides 2 percent of the state’s gasoline,” said Jamie Court, president of the Santa Monica-based foundation.

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