AAA: Labor Day travel expected to dip

MIAMI (AP) - August 30, 2008

About 34.4 million people are projected to travel at least 50 miles from home - a 1.1 percent decline from Labor Day 2007. Travel over Memorial weekend and Independence Day 2008 was also down compared to last year, according to auto club AAA.

"A lot of people may choose that they don't want to take a risk. They know how quickly weather can change and that may discourage a lot of travelers from traveling any distance this weekend," AAA spokesman Gregg Laskoski said Saturday.

Travel in the Southeast could be particularly low. AAA officials predict a decline of 0.6 percent from last year.

Alabama tourism officials said the coast's 15,000 hotel rooms and condominiums dropped from about 80 percent to 85 percent booked to about 50 percent to 60 percent after forecasters said Gustav was heading to the Gulf of Mexico.

On Florida's east coast, officials at popular tourist spots like Daytona Beach warned of dangerous rip currents, even though Gustav posed no immediate threat.

On the state's west coast, beaches were packed. A strip along Panama City Beach was lined with traffic and vacationers enjoyed parasailing, and shopped idly at gift shops and sipped colorful drinks at tiki bars.

"All the evacuees are coming here," said Georgia Taylor, who was working the front desk Saturday at the Holiday Inn SunSpree Resort in Panama City Beach.

Taylor said they've already had dozens of evacuees check in as of Saturday afternoon.

She said the hotel doesn't typically allow pets, but they would be making an exception for those fleeing Gustav.

While evacuees were arriving at Alabama beach resorts, Jacob Doucet said he and eight others were cutting short their Labor Day vacation to head back home to Lafayette, La., which is in Gustav's projected path.

"We want to get home before the contra-flow starts," he said, referring to the one-way, inland-only traffic pattern on interstate highways to evacuate people faster. He said he has no plans to leave his home once he gets back.

Gasoline in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee and most of the U.S.

remains at about $1 per gallon higher than at this time last year even though retail prices have steadily dropped since crude oil peaked in mid-July, according to AAA. Regular gas was averaging about $3.68 a gallon nationwide.

Along with heavy gas prices, travelers are also getting hit with airline fees amid a struggling economy.

As the hurricane appeared on a path to the west of New Orleans, a number of Louisiana residents decided to go east to Alabama beach resorts that had plenty of rooms available.

"A lot of cancellations were going on, but it's now picking up," said Dottie Ray, manager of the Grape Escape Deli and Wine Cellar in Orange Beach.

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