tourists still coming despite high gas prices

Real Estate Agent with wnc brokers
Tourists still coming, despite high gas prices
By Nathaniel H. Axtell, Staff Writer
Posted: Wednesday, May 23, 2007 - 09:21:51 am EDT

Floris Moll, owner of Silversun Custom Carpentry in Cashiers, puts $20 in his truck on Friday. It was just enough gas to fill a quarter of his tank, he said.

Gas prices continue to skyrocket locally, but national and local travel experts say it will not put much of a damper on Memorial Day traffic in Cashiers.

The price of a gallon of regular in Cashiers hit $3.29 on Monday, with premium running 20 cents higher. Jayne Cannon, a spokeswoman with AAA Carolinas, said the Asheville area has some of the highest gas prices in the state.

"Today, the average price of gas (per gallon) in North Carolina is $3.12, and Asheville is averaging $3.16," Cannon said. She said refinery outages, coupled with high demand, are driving the higher prices.

"There's just not enough gas available, and there's higher consumption of the gas we do have," Cannon said. Surveys by AAA show high gas prices are not putting a damper on people's lifestyles, she said.

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"That's part of the reason we have such high consumption," Cannon said. "It doesn't look like people are letting the price of gas stop them from much of anything."

Local travel experts say the cost at the pump hurts, but not enough to slow local tourism.

"It doesn't seem like gas prices affects us like some other places," said Sue Bumgarner, executive director of the Cashiers Chamber of Commerce. "Not like places like Gatlinburg and Cherokee."

Bumgarner said visitors to Cashiers are generally more affluent than your average mountain tourists and many are visiting relatives that live here, which cuts their travel costs.

"Based on the number of inquiries we've gotten, it looks like we're going to have a pretty good Memorial Day weekend," she said. "It's kind of a kickoff for the season. We don't really get started to the middle of June, when school gets out."

Local lodging is booking up fast, hoteliers said, although perhaps not as quickly as in earlier years. The Hampton Inn & Suites in Sapphire had some availability on Friday, but was filling up rapidly.Laurelwood Mountain Inn in Cashiers still had a few rooms left on Friday, but expected to be full by the time Memorial Day weekend is here. Owner Lisa Dews said tourism has not been quite as strong in the last four or five years, even before gas prices rose above $2 a gallon.

"We have seen a decline in tourism since we came here," Dews said, whose family has owned the Inn for 12 years. "Years ago, we would've been sold out a month ago for Memorial Day weekend. We're still filling rooms, but it's coming later in the week."

Dews speculated that may be due to former visitors buying homes in the area. She believes Cashiers is more insulated from the effects of high gas prices because visitors here "tend to be more upper income. But we'd all love to see the gas come down."

Gas prices in Cashiers tend to run about 10 cents more per gallon than surrounding areas like Brevard and Sylva, said Don Elliott, owner of the Cashiers Convenience and BP station. He said his prices are set by BP, supposedly based on the increased cost of hauling fuel up here.

"I think it's just gouging," Elliott said. "They raise it up so they can collect top dollar during top usage. I think after this Memorial Day, it'll drop down a little bit. It is a rip-off the way they manipulate prices."

Elliott said he didn't think higher gas prices would hurt Cashiers tourism this weekend, based on the continued business he has seen despite prices climbing above $2 and then $3 a gallon.

"People will complain about a lot of things, but they go on using it," Elliott said. "It doesn't matter what it costs, they're going to keep on paying it. It's too bad people wouldn't boycott service stations for a week. That would get the oil companies' attention."

Jim Nichols, owner of the Cashiers Exxon and Food Mart, agreed that consumers don't seem too fazed by rising gas prices.

"People are really locked into their regular driving habits and most people don't even look or compare prices, or change their driving habits," he said. "It's really amazing to me."

Nichols predicts gas would have to climb above $4 per gallon before it began to diminish peoples' thirst for fuel. Based on this week's traffic, he doesn't believe that current prices will reduce visitation to Cashiers over Memorial Day.

"If folks see that the weather will be good, they'll be here," Nichols said. "The only thing I'm noticing is there are not as many full-fledged families, large families driving through on the weekend. Business traffic remains the same, local traffic remains strong, but some of the family-oriented traffic has disappeared."

Though they get an earful from drivers upset about climbing gas prices, Nichols and Elliott said local service stations are at the mercy of national oil companies and regional distributors. Both men said their profits from gas sales are shrinking.

"For a long time, we had a good profit margin on fuel," said Nichols, who has owned the Exxon since 1979. "It was our main source of income. Now it's reversed and store sales are the benchmark for any profit we generate here. Our fuel margins are tight, very tight."

Elliott agreed.

"The strange thing is, the higher the prices go, the lower the profit we make," he said. "You might sell it for two to three cents less than what you paid for it (per gallon), so it's a dead loss. If we owned the tanks and pumps at our station and bought gas on the open market, we could set our own prices. But we don't and we can't."
Greg Zaccagni
The Federal Savings Bank - Wheaton, IL
Illinois Mortgage Lender

Do you find more visitors are flying in vs driving?  Are they in rental cars when they register at the hotel?

Greg Z

Aug 05, 2007 06:09 AM