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High gas prices or not, a holiday is a holiday

Times Staff Writers

A government report said Friday that Americans were cutting back on driving for the first time since 1979, but California’s highways appeared as packed as usual on the eve of the three-day Memorial Day weekend. Tourism officials around the state were upbeat and retailers like Linda Meyer, manager of a store called Bikini Factory, were hopeful.

“We’re SoCal,” said Meyer, who has run her shop in touristy Summerland, south of Santa Barbara, for 33 years. “That’s what we do. We go places.”

The average price of a gallon of regular gas in the state has topped $4, but the high cost was seen as a blessing in a very expensive disguise at some Southern California destinations.

“Southern Californians are taking their vacations in Southern California,” said Jim McLean, owner of Apples Bed & Breakfast Inn in Big Bear Lake. “They’re going to take short trips but they’re still going to enjoy their time away.”

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McLean said all but one of his 19 rooms were booked for the weekend -- a better showing than last year. Tourism officials in the Big Bear area said bookings generally were up 7% from last Memorial Day.

In Santa Barbara, the hotels had booked all 5,000 of their rooms. By late afternoon Friday, traffic on U.S. 101 into the city moved glacially. For many visitors to a city where rates at top hotels glide past $600 a night, doling out extra money for gas was more irritating than prohibitive.

“We expect this weekend to be very busy,” said Steve Cushman, executive director of the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce. A foggy morning could be more likely than another gas hike to deter Angelenos from making the 90-minute drive, he said.

Even so, AAA predicted that travel nationally would decrease modestly this weekend, with about 1% fewer Americans making road trips. A survey by the Deloitte consulting firm found that gas prices prompted 12% of the people with Memorial Day plans to cancel them, and 11% to opt for destinations closer to home.

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The Federal Highway Administration said Friday that drivers were cutting back their miles in a way not seen since 1979, when the U.S. was rocked by an oil embargo that brought soaring prices and long lines at gas stations.

“Right now we have enough information to officially call it a trend,” said FHA spokesman Doug Hecox. According to the survey, drivers started staying off the roads in droves last November. In March, the miles driven on U.S. highways fell 4.3% from March 2007.

When motorists cut back in 1979, it was two years before highway traffic volume bounced back, Hecox said.

Even if Americans keep driving, businesses are worried that visitors will have less to spend when they arrive at their destinations.

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“I’m not worried about people coming here -- Santa Barbara is an awesome place to visit -- but I am worried about their budgets,” said Meyer, the bikini shop manager. “You don’t need a new bathing suit every year, but you do need to fill your tank.”

Some places popular with Southern Californians are feeling a pinch. Officials in Las Vegas expect visitor spending to drop by about 6% this Memorial Day compared with 2007. Many casinos are resorting to discounts and other come-ons, with the average hotel rates in Clark County declining almost 3% in the first three months of the year.

“It’s not one thing in particular,” said Vince Alberta of the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. “It’s an overall reflection of the national economy -- the housing crisis, consumer confidence, gas prices.”

At sold-out Carpinteria State Beach on Friday, that mix was on the minds of some campers setting up their sites.

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Jennifer and Scott Morris had come with seven other families from Moorpark, their home, and neighboring Simi Valley. He lost his job in construction but had made his coveted Memorial Day reservations in November and didn’t want to back out. One of their friends had spent $120 on gas to haul a 26-foot supply-packed trailer to the campsite. Jennifer Morris said she was upset about gas prices but there was nothing she could do.

“Hopefully tomorrow,” she said, sipping a drink and looking forward to the evening’s barbecue, “the weather will get better and the kids will run off to the beach and everything will be good.”

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steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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martin.zimmerman@latimes.com


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