Prince George's County officials said they expect local tourism this summer to reach its highest level in three years. Their predictions mirror a study released last week by AAA that predicts 3.4 percent more U.S. vacationers will be on the road Memorial Day weekend than were traveling at this time last year.
"This area might get a little bit more than that because we were a little more depressed over the last few years," said J. Matthew Neitzey, executive director of the Prince George's County Conference & Visitors Bureau in Largo.
The county's entertainment and hotel industries are a small but important part of the county's economy. According to a 2001 Census survey, almost 10 percent of the jobs in the county are tourism- or convention-related. Many people who stay in Prince George's stop here because of its convenience, Neitzey said. Many of the county's hotels are near Metro stations or off Interstate 95, which serves the East Coast from Maine to Florida.
Prince George's proximity to the highway is a plus because nationally, 80 percent of vacationers will drive to their destinations, said Sue Akey, a spokeswoman for AAA Mid-Atlantic. According to the AAA-sponsored telephone survey of 1,300 adults, increased gas prices won't deter many.
"The price of gas is up about 50 cents compared to last year," Akey said. "That's an increase of [about] $20 per trip. If you compare that to hotel [rates] and amusement park tickets, that $20 is a very small part of a family vacation."
Local promotions are in the works to attract a slice of the nation's highway travelers. Prince George's is participating in a regional advertising campaign to draw travelers to the recently completed National World War II Memorial in the District.
Neitzey's visitors bureau is also working with the county executive's office to bring more African American family reunions to Prince George's. Families often rotate the locations of their reunions, which could bring thousands of first-time visitors to Prince George's, he said.
The campaign's theme is "Gorgeous Prince George's: Where Families Come Together."
"Our research has shown us that the majority of family reunions that take place in the county are African American," Neitzey said. "We think this a natural for us.
"We're right on the nation's capital's doorstep," he said. "It's a great place to stay as a base . . . . We're very close to a lot of things. People who live out in the Midwest, it's nothing for them to drive an hour to go to dinner. You drive an hour here, and you're well into Baltimore."
Another draw is the Six Flags America theme park, he said. Six Flags started its marketing push a few months ago with a commercial featuring a man wearing a black tuxedo and large black, framed glasses dancing wildly to "We Like to Party" as he leads a group of stressed-out people to Six Flags.
The park has had more visitors this year than it had during the same period in 2003, said Chris Haenn, Six Flags America's director of marketing.
"We are poised to have a good year," he said, noting that last year, "it was raining very heavily in the month of May."
Two years ago, Six Flags began a partnership with local hotels that sell passes to the park, and its Web site directs vacationers to those hotels. The partnership is attracting visitors from outside the Washington area, Haenn said.
Curtis Martin, general manager of the Doubletree Club Hotel in Largo -- one of the hotel partners -- said youth groups from Ohio and Kentucky are reserving more rooms than last year.
"The volume this year is much greater than last year," Martin said. "What held down travel last year was the war and security alerts. Things are back to normal, but not as strong as pre-9/11."
Matthew Rutigliano, general manager of the Holiday Inn in College Park, said his hotel has been drawing more visitors for another reason. The Ikea store that opened directly behind it last year has brought increased traffic and likely raised the hotel's visibility.
"We definitely see a trending upward in our market," he said.