DESPITE THE DECLINING dollar and rising gas prices, the outlook seems bright for Washington-area travelers planning a trip close to home this winter or spring.
Many area travel industry officials remain optimistic that business will be good even if the cost of gas increases or supplies run short. But most are cautiously hedging their bets and seeking to lessen tourists' fears by offering packages and programs that emphasize the economy and convenience of visiting nearby attractions. The welcome will be warm.
"We're pretty sure that there will be plenty of gas, but the price will be high," said Wayne Kennedy, assistant director of the Maryland State Office of Tourism Development. "But people will still travel. They may rearrange how they will get somewhere, but they will still take trips."
Colonial Williamsburg, 150 miles south of Washington, is offering a program of 13 seminars on crafts, architecture and history for the second season, and also special group and winter rates. The city is sponsoring a number of community events and colonial weekend programs, all to encourage winter tourism.
"Our business was not bad last year," remarked Patricia LaLand, press spokeswoman. "But this year we are adding more incentives to attract travelers who may be hesitating because of the gas situation."
LaLand said she and her associates "traveled last summer throughout the state to places a tank of gas away so we could say in our advertising campaigns in those areas, 'here we are, only a few hours away.' We hope that encourages people to say, for example, 'Well, since we can't go to Kansas City this year, let's go on down to Williamsburg for a change.'"
The local chamber of commerce has organized gas stations in the area so that a few are always open, and a toll-free number provides up-to-the-minute information. The Williamsburg area is also working with the Virginia Travel Council, which emphasizes package tours to neighboring attractions such as Jamestown, Yorktown and Busch Gardens.
One attraction -- King's Dominion at Doswell, only 70 miles from Washington -- is actively persuing the close-to-home traveler rather than the vacationer. "Although business was good last year, mainly because we opened a new attraction, we still feel the need to solicit group business," said Jack Yeager, spokesman for the amusement park. "By emphasizing our closeness and our . . . entertainment package, we should have a good year," Yeager said. The park opens for weekends only in March, and daily beginning Memorial Day weekend.
Busch Gardens does not open until April 5, and operates weekends only until May 22, when the daily schedule begins. It is adding a new section, "Italy," to the Old Country this summer, and continuing to offer entertainment by celebrities, which helped keep attendance figures very high last year. Travel manager Connie Desaulniers said discounts are still available to groups of 25 or more and to bus tours. "The bus business saved us last year. They were great," she said, adding that she expects "a good deal of group business again this year."
Two other Virginia areas, Virginia Beach and Norfolk, are concentrating on group and package tours this season.
"We are doing our homework on attitudes towards vacations this year," said Jim Rickets, tourism development coordinator for Virginia Beach, "and we are discovering that, because of the energy situation, people are looking for more diversity closer to home."
He said Virginia Beach is seeking more regional cooperation and developing packages with others in the Tidewater area. "We are making adjustments and changes and putting more funds into a closer market. We don't anticipate a gas shortage, but we are prepared," he said.
Tourism was up 11 percent last year and he projects a 15 percent increase this year. "We are hoping for a back-lash from those who didn't travel last year," said Rickets.
Norfolk is not featuring any new programs this season, but it is working more aggressively with bus tour operators. "We haven't been in the bus tour market before," said travel manager Ann Reed, "but we are soliciting more business from them. We're also stressing our lower rates and our location, since we feel close-to-home travel will be a trend in the '80s."
Virginia hopes to capitalize on this trend and is undertaking a major ad campaign this spring that will promote in-state travel. Virginia's aggressive approach to attracting tourism will also take the gas situation into consideration.
"We are currently surveying major attractions to assess their fuel availability," said travel director Marshall Murdaugh. "At Thanksgiving and Christmas, travelers seemed unconcerned about the high price of gas, and we hope this attitude continues this winter and spring."
West Virginia tourism is receiving a backlash of tourists who are flocking to its snowy slopes instead of New England's grassy slopes.
"West Virginia has had snow," said Mary Cobb, a travel office staffer. "Our ski resorts have been booked." Canaan Valley, 190 miles from Washington, and Snowshoe, 235 miles away, are operating at full force, she said.
Aside from the snow, West Virginia hopes to attract more tourists through its new advertising campaigns. "We have never done television ads before," said a state advertising official. "But this spring we are doing a pilot campaign in Washington. Since we realize the gas situation will have its effect this season as it did last year, we are concentrating in one area." He stressed, however, that the campaigns will not dwell on the gas problem. "The public knows about it and is probably tired of being reminded about it. So we are taking a subtle approach."
Tourists are being pursued by Pennsylvania's travel office. "We're taking a more active role this year in promoting travel in-state," said Skip Becker, director of travel. "A new ad campaign will start April 21, and the private sector will be coming up with new packages and group rates."
Becker expects domestic travel to be big in the '80s, because of the low value of the dollar and because of the state's plans to capitalize on the fuel availability question. "We look at it as a challenge and an opportunity to offer Pennsylvania as the answer" to a vacation close to home, he said.
One area close to Washington, the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, is already offering reduced admissions to encourage travel. "We just created a special discount for senior citizens," said Norene Lahr, director of public relations. "And we are actively going after group business, which we never did before. More and more we're looking to bus companies and travel agencies to arrange low-cost group tours."
She also mentioned an increased emphasis on the area's "ideal location, near so many population centers," which makes it an economical, one-tank trip.
Gettysburg, Pa., will also emphasize its location in its new campaign, according to Jim Cole, Gettysburg Travel Council director. "Aside from more advertising tied in with other nearby counties, we are also offering a record number of special events this season. This will be the first full season that the original copy of the Gettysburg Address will be on display," he said.
He expects business to be good and gas to be available. "Last year what killed us was people's perception of the situation. Many were uncertain if they could get gas and so they didn't travel. But since there probably will be gas this year, even though at higher prices, people will plan trips -- but probably shorter and closer to home trips."
While Cole is optimistic, area ski resort operators are not. Business has been slow so far this year because there has been so little snow. Most of the ski resorts open in Pennsylvania are using their snowmaking equipment and hoping they get more snow soon.
In Delaware, state travel manager Don Mathewson said his state is taking four steps to attract travelers. "We're promoting more in a primary market area, within 300 miles, and offering weekend trip packages. We are implementing a stand-by program in case of a gas shortage, sponsoring a gas availability toll-free number and creating four numbers for local gas information."
Mathewson doesn't anticipate much trouble this year with the gas situation, but says his state is prepared just in case.
Delaware's neighbor, Maryland, is promoting get-away tours to cities such as Baltimore and Annapolis. "We are emphasizing closer one-day trips more this year than last," said assistant tourism director Kennedy. "But we are sill in the midst of putting plans together for travel within the state in 1980."
He's optimistic about the travel industry because "it is an election year and the president will be concerned with making gas available for now."
In Atlantic City, the new gambling mecca, Park Place Casino Hotel is offering a day-trip bus program and finding it pays off. The package includes round-trip transportation, a champagne buffet lunch, entertainment and priority access to the casino. "We officially began selling this program Dec. 27, 1979. Since then, the response has been absolutely unbelievable," said Russ Smythe. "I have 30 reservations from tour brokers sitting on my desk. Each one will bring 35 people or more to our hotel."
Other areas are also betting that this year's travelers will still take trips close to home, especially if a special package is thrown in. The way things are going, Americans will need their vacations just to get from one crisis to the next.