Leisure travel slower than usual, but picking up steam

The vacation travel industry is down but not out.

“We are definitely trending slower than we did last year, but pleasantly, surprisingly it’s pretty steady,” said Vanessa Jones, division manager for the Macon office of AAA Auto Club South on Tom Hill Sr. Boulevard.

People still are traveling, but instead of doing exotic trips they might normally have taken, they are taking “more of the shorter cruises, the more affordable cruises,” Jones said.

Travel consultant Nancy Wells with Ship & Shore Travel Agency on Vineville Avenue, said the fourth quarter of 2008 was pretty bad.

“Everybody just froze up,” Wells said. “They didn’t do hardly anything.”

If people booked trips, it was the more upscale traveler who booked trips to Europe, Alaska and upscale cruises, she said.

But leisure travel is beginning to trend slightly upward, according to a news release this week from the U.S. Travel Association. The U.S. Traveler Sentiment Index rose to 90.2 in February 2009 from 78.2 in October 2008 due to an increase in the perceived “affordability of travel,” the release stated. It was the first increase in the index since January 2008.

Wells agreed that this quarter things seem to be turning around.

“We’ve been rather busy,” she said. “People are not booking quite as far in advance as they were at one time. And everyone seems much more interested in taking out cancellation protection insurance.”

“So it’s not as dire as we thought it was going to be,” she said.

While her agency doesn’t book many spring break trips for college-age students, they do handle some for high school groups, Wells said.

Right now, Ship & Shore is booking spring break trips to Cancun and Jamaica, despite recent warnings about traveling to Mexico because of violence fueled by drug wars.

The U.S. State Department has had a travel alert in place for more than a year regarding rising drug cartel-related crime in northern Mexico, according to The Associated Press.

The alert was renewed Feb. 20.

“We’ve only had a few drop out of the trips to Mexico,” Wells said. “A few parents really didn’t want their kids to go, so they dropped out.”

Jones said people seeking spring break trips through AAA are just beginning to come in.

“It is a little later than usual,” Jones said. “Usually it’s late February or early March, but the traffic has really started to pick up (this week).”

Of the people going to Mexico for spring break, they are looking at cruises, she said.

“I think people feel safer on cruises because they know that the ports will be guarded,” Jones said. “We are not seeing a lot of travel to Mexico otherwise right now. I don’t know if it’s because of the crime-related things going on or just the distance.”

So far this year, fuel prices are not the issue they were a year ago.

As of March 13, the national average of unleaded regular gasoline was $1.92 a gallon, according to AAA Auto Club report. A year ago it was $3.26 a gallon.

“As households receive their tax refunds, and more choose to take steps to reduce credit card debt, we believe that many will make plans for a summer vacation closer to home even if that means additional belt-tightening on other expenditures, the AAA report stated.

Jones agreed that the “drive market” which is about six to seven hours away from Middle Georgia is steady. This includes trips to Savannah and the Carolinas and Gatlinburg, Tenn., areas, which still are poplar.

The biggest change that the economy has had on the travel industry seems to be that people are just waiting longer to make plans.

“Pretty much people have made up their minds they are going to do it,” Wells said. “Some people have said ‘let’s go while we still have the money.’”

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223.