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N.C. tourism can stay exciting in troubled economy, officials say

Despite high gas prices, North Carolinians and their visitors can still enjoy the beach and mountains – and the world's largest bodyflight center and collection of waterfowl.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Gas prices have cut in half the distance travelers are willing to go for Memorial Day, but state officials expect North Carolina's tourism industry to fare well this weekend and through the summer.

Its central location keeps North Carolina competitive in the race for tourism dollars, said Wit Tuttel, public-relations director for the state Department of Tourism.

"We're within driving distance of all the major population centers on the East Coast, so we get a lot of people from neighboring states," Tuttel said.

The average cost of a gallon of unleaded gas topped $3.90 in the Triangle for the first time on Saturday, according to AAA and Oil Price Information Service. That's up about 74 cents from a year ago.

AAA forecasts that such high gas prices will keep the average Memorial Day trip to 250 miles – about half the distance traveled in 2007.

"We're fortunate in North Carolina that we typically are insulated from things like this," Tuttle said. "So while people may think gas, everything is high, they may not make that trip to Florida, (but) you can still go to North Carolina."

In-state travel is also a big part of the tourism industry, Tuttle said. That will probably be true this Memorial Day, with 805,000 North Carolinians – roughly the same number as last year – expected to hit the road.

Where the travelers go

From the Triangle, within the range of that 250-mile average trip, lies one of the state's tourism assets: the Outer Banks.

"You got to love the beach on Memorial Day weekend. It's really the kickoff," Tuttle said.

Some Outer Banks vacationers told WRAL on Friday that they were cutting back in other ways, including spending less on groceries and eating out.

Outer Banks tourism officials said bookings for summer vacations appear to be strong, but some beach-house owners are offering gas cards as an incentive to book rentals.

Tuttle also reminded tourists not to count out the attractions of the western part of the state. He said tourism officials from western counties said they expect to do well this summer.

"The mountains are also popular. People like to get away, and it's beautiful in the mountains right now," he said.

Tuttle cited some of North Carolina's newest attractions:

  • "Emissaries of Peace" exhibit at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian in Cherokee, Swain County. Several hundred exhibits chronicle the 1760s peace efforts between the Cherokee and the British and give a glimpse into Cherokee life.

"You can actually skydive without jumping out of a place, which is the only way I would do it," Tuttle said.



Anne Johnson, Web Editor

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