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Get Out the Rand McNally: Americans Ready to Travel

Grab your Nikon. Strap on the car carriers. Americans are hitting the road again.

From Gettysburg to the Grand Tetons, the travel industry is bracing for a banner summer after a lull in the early 1990s.

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Behind the wanderlust: an improving economy, rising consumer confidence, and cheap gas.

Take Betty Jordan. The Stratford, Conn., business consultant usually vacations close to home. This year, she and a friend decided to tack two weeks onto a trip to San Diego for a convention. On their agenda: southern California beaches, Rodeo Drive, Arizona's Grand Canyon.

``We've been going ever since we got here,'' says Ms. Jordan, relaxing, momentarily, by a gurgling fountain at the entrance to Universal Studios Hollywood here. ``I haven't thought about work yet.''

As Americans thumb through their Rand McNally road maps for Memorial Day weekend, the traditional start of the summer vacation season, there are several signs of vigor in the $397-billion domestic-travel industry:

* The Travel Industry Association, a trade group, forecasts a 4.5 percent increase in summer travel this year over 1993. Eighty percent of the trips will be by car and 16 percent by air. Among the most popular destinations: Orlando, Fla.; the Grand Canyon; Yellowstone Park; Williamsburg, Va.; and Washington, D.C.

* The American Automobile Association (AAA) estimates a record 28.9 million Americans will travel this weekend, up slightly from a year ago. Many trips will be for short stays, a growing phenomenon in American leisure: people taking three or more ``minivacations'' a year instead of one long hiatus.

* Bookings at five popular hotel chains - Days Inn, Howard Johnson, Park Inns, Ramada, and Super 8 - are up 11.6 percent for the summer over last year, according to Hospitality Franchise Systems Inc., the parent company.

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For the lodging industry as a whole, moribund throughout the 1990s, guests are gradually coming back too: Occupancy rates through March stood at 60.1 percent, up 2 percent over 1993 but still below rates of the 1980s.

``The summer bodes pretty well,'' says John Fox, senior vice president of PKF Consulting, a hospitality and real estate consulting firm. ``In general, I sense a pretty upbeat attitude in the industry.''

Gasoline prices that, on average, are three cents a gallon less than last year are contributing to the expected big summer travel season. Some airlines are offering bargain-basement rates as well.

But improved economic conditions are probably the main reason for the suitcase-packing. Unemployment at 6.4 percent is at its lowest level since early 1991. Consumer confidence has been rising since October.

Many people put off purchases of durable goods during the recession. With that buying now picking up, spending on vacations and other leisure activities is expected to follow.

``Long term there is concern about the impact of higher interest rates,'' says Geoff Sundstrom of the AAA. ``But for now, everything is coming up roses.''

Visitation at some of America's favorite haunts has been mixed so far. Some 6.7 million people, for instance, visited the Smithsonian Institution's museums and galleries in Washington, D.C., and New York City the first four months of the year - down from 7.5 million last year. Bad weather is blamed for the dearth.

Robin's-egg-blue skies prevailed over Yosemite National Park in California much of the winter and spring. The result: a 14 percent jump in visitation in January through April. Similarly, the Grand Canyon, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, has seen a 9 percent increase over the same period.

ANY pickup in tourism will be welcomed by cities and states - particularly southern California. Fires, riots, earthquakes, economic woes, concern about crime - all have impacted the region's all-important tourism industry. Visits by Japanese have been down in particular this year - about 10 percent statewide.

``Tourism just dropped out'' after the earthquake, says Joan Bullard of Universal Studios Hollywood, the second largest attraction in the area behind Disneyland.

Local officials, though, are hoping for an uptick this summer with Los Angeles being one of the host cities for World Cup soccer. Also, the economy is no longer in a half nelson.

Ms. Jordan and her friend, Stephanie Swann, may be part of the advance guard. None of the area's recent calamities, natural or man-made, has deterred them. Their concerns are more basic.

``There is a lot of traffic,'' says Ms. Jordan of her first visit to Los Angeles.

``It is expensive,'' adds Ms. Swann.

Anything in particular?

``We saw this diamond ring along Rodeo Drive for $17,000.''

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