High gas prices squeeze tourists

Posted: Thursday, June 22, 2000

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Alaska tourists are gritting their teeth and emptying their wallets to fill their gas tanks.

But high fuel prices apparently haven't slowed the travel plans of some visitors.

John Medoro, a retired engineer from Colorado Springs, Colo., can pay as much as $400 to fill the fuel tank of his mammoth RV. His converted motor coach needs to be refueled every 1,000 miles or so.

Soaring gasoline prices are hitting tourists like the Medoros hardest this season, but Alaska tourism officials say this summer is shaping up to be decent for the state's No. 3 industry.

Airlines and cruise-ship companies contacted this week say business is at least as good as last year, when an estimated 1.2 million visitors came to the state.

Highway travelers comprise 10 percent of the state's tourists during a typical year. But that segment of the industry is getting squeezed. Fuel prices are up 50 cents a gallon nationally compared with a year ago - 33 cents in Alaska, according to AAA Alaska, a membership travel club.

Besides fewer highway travelers, the high fuel costs mean less money to spend on tours and trinkets.

The Medoros said that unlike many fellow RVers, they have enough resources so they don't have to pinch pennies.

''I was going to come up here regardless,'' said Medoro, standing in the mirrored living room of his RV. He and his wife, Dianne, had been planning their Alaska trip for 10 years.

But as far back as St. Louis they heard about people who wouldn't make the Alaska trip this year because of gas prices, he said.

Jim Sides tracked in a spiral notebook the gas prices he and his wife, Carol, paid along their trip from Algonac, Mich. The cheapest gas they found on the way north was in Baudette, Minn., at $1.45 a gallon; the most expensive was at Dawson Creek in Canada, at $3.19.

To balance out the high fuel costs they're visiting a lot of places that don't charge fees, they said.

Border agents reported that 1,105 fewer people drove through the Alaska and Taylor highway checkpoints in May compared with 1999.

''It hasn't been that busy,'' said Lisa Conrad with the state's Division of Tourism's Tok office.

Jay Rollins with Kenai Fjord Tours, which runs day trips out of Seward, said so far in June customer numbers are up 3 percent.

''Our fears about gas prices don't seem to be coming true,'' he said, although a concerned RV owner called from Chicago to ask about gas prices.

In Seward, gas is selling for $1.75 compared with Chicago's roughly $2 a gallon.

Tony and Marge Bumgarner drove from Lockport, Ill., in May bound for a summer of sightseeing around Alaska. Back then, gas prices were under $1.60 a gallon at home.

Little did they know, they could escape the high prices back home by coming to Alaska and its relatively cheap gas. Prices back home are about now $1.80 a gallon.

''The (Alaska) gas prices are a total shock for us,'' she said.

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