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US travel industry is sailing along smartly this summer

Plowing through rapids on a white-water rafting trip. Sailing up the New England coast on a windjammer cruise. Active vacations like these are now ''in, '' says Tom Schneider, promotion director of Target Sport Tours in Brookline, Mass.

When you include sports in your vacation, ''you feel better about yourself,'' he says. With white-water rafting, for instance, ''you still see beautiful mountains, but you're in them, not driving past them with a sandwich on your lap.''

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Target Sport, which arranges tours mostly for companies and their employees, started six years ago. Business has doubled every year since. Mr. Schneider doubts Target will double business again this year, but even so, he's expecting a good summer season.

So is the rest of the travel industry, the second-largest service business in the country. According to the Travel Industry Association of America (TIAA), Americans will be taking more - and longer - vacations this summer, which should make it the strongest summer for the business in at least four years. Target's growth is something of a special case, since the company fits the category of ''package tour operator,'' the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry. Last year the tour-operator business grew 20 percent and companies like Target, which focus on special interests such as sports, art, history, or science, did especially well.

Economists and travel executives are pointing to logical reasons for the good summer outlook. ''I would say what we're seeing here is to some degree a normal recovery from recession,'' comments Lee Howard, an economist at the Air Transport Association of America. Air traffic will be up somewhere between 5 and 7 percent this summer over last summer, the association estimates. Part of the growth is caused by a 15 percent increase in the number of Americans taking advantage of the strong dollar and flying to Europe.

Then there are special events like the Olympics and the World's Fair in New Orleans, says Patricia Duricka, a TIAA spokeswoman. ''Those two events have got people talking about travel,'' she says.

Gasoline prices figure in, too. They have been dropping steadily and look like they'll keep doing so, according to Dan Lundberg, an oil industry analyst who regularly tracks gas prices. His latest report, released last Sunday, showed the average price of gas in all 50 states fell by 1.37 cents during the two weeks preceding the survey. The post-Memorial Day period is when gasoline prices traditionally rise. About 80 percent of all travel in the United States is by car, truck, or recreational vehicle.

While this is good news for the 6.8 million Americans employed by the industry, it isn't as good as they had hoped. Yes, summer travel will rise, but only by 3 percent, forecasters say.

''We somehow thought that auto purchases would translate into road traffic; you buy a new car, you want to use it,'' says Allan Wilbur, an American Automobile Association spokesman. ''We haven't seen the pent-up, mammoth demand for travel that everyone said was coming. While people are traveling some, it's not the 12 percent increase that was being bandied about in the industry last December.''

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Industry experts seem a little confused about why travel traffic isn't much stronger, especially since the country seems to have pulled out all the stops on this recovery. Ms. Duricka says the traffic increases are ''spotty.'' Vacation inquiries in New England, for instance, are up 20 to 30 percent, says George Sahady, an economist with the New England Governors' Conference. But traffic at the old reliable, Yellowstone National Park, is down slightly.

Mr. Wilbur, at AAA, simply thinks consumers are being cautious, ''playing close to the vest'' with their plans. One thing seems certain, the stream of travelers leaving the US for Europe is not strong enough to hurt domestic travel. ''It's a drop in the bucket compared with US travel,'' says a spokesman for the European Travel Commission.

Some states take comfort in this: While they may be a little disappointed with tourist growth, at least tourists are spending more on their vacations. ''There was a tendency (among tourists) to limit their budget and brown-bag it, '' says Michael Power, director of New Hampshire's travel office, ''but now they are spending more when they get here.''

Mr. Power says competition among states for the tourist is intensifying. ''The 'I Love New York' campaign is what started it in the Northeast,'' he says. In fact, quite a little marketing war has broken out among some states and with our northern neighbor, Canada, which doubled its advertising budget this year. Mr. Power says marketing can make all the difference.

Last year, New Hampshire switched from ''inquiry'' advertising, where consumers clip newspaper or magazine coupons to get travel information, to color ''image'' advertising: ''Bring the Family'' is now the slogan on television. Tourism spending increased 7 percent, making last year a record.

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