Will gas prices put the brakes on Aspen’s summer tourism?
ASPEN – Whether travelers hit the road this summer or book a flight, sharply rising fuel prices are likely to put a dent in their wallet. Less clear is whether destinations like Aspen will feel the impact as recession-weary vacationers wince at the price of gas.The last time crude oil prices skyrocketed, in the summer of 2008, and local gas prices crept over the $5 per gallon mark, it was pretty much business as usual, recalled Bill Tomcich, president of local reservations agency Stay Aspen Snowmass.”It didn’t seem to impact business too terribly,” he said.But, that summer, the country was still a few months away from its precipitous slide into the Great Recession.This spring, both gasoline prices and airfares have climbed steadily as crude oil prices again climbed above $100 a barrel. Though prices dipped below that mark Thursday for the first time since mid-March, energy analysts were uncertain whether the drop was merely a blip or a stabilization of prices that will bring relief at the pumps, according to a report in USA Today.”It’ll be really interesting to see how this all shakes out,” Tomcich said.Rising fuel prices are reflected in both gas prices and airfares, but vacationers who plan to fly overseas will suffer the greatest sticker shock. The fuel surcharge on long-distance flights can be as high as the fare itself, according to Tomcich, who keeps close tabs on what’s happening in the airline industry. Fares for domestic flights, too, are climbing.”Prices are coming up everywhere. Look at the cost at the gas pump – that’ll tell you why,” said Tomcich.Nonetheless, there are deals to be found, according to Tomcich, who said on Thursday he booked a flight from Aspen to Denver for $69. The fare, on Frontier, was still available Friday morning for the Monday flight.While Aspen sees more visitors who drive into town during the summer than it does in the winter, the flying public still makes up the largest segment of the resort’s guest makeup, according to Julia Theisen, vice president of sales and marketing for the Aspen Chamber Resort Association.Last summer, 56 percent of the resort’s visitors flew for at least part of their travel, according to the ACRA’s visitor research, while 44 percent traveled by vehicle, she said. Of those who flew, 37 percent came directly into the Aspen airport.Airfares this summer will, as always, be largely a function of supply and demand, and Aspen will have a “plentiful” supply of airline seats, according to Tomcich. Service this summer will match last year, with 11 daily connections to Denver on United and one daily connection to Los Angeles. In addition, there will be inbound United flights from Chicago and L.A. on Saturdays; those planes will go to Denver on Sundays, he said. Frontier will offer four daily connections with Denver for the summer season.Whether visitors drive or fly, they’re likely to see a credit of some sort if they book a stay of at least two nights, Theisen said.While the chamber discussed reviving its free-gas promotion in light of rising gasoline prices, it has opted to do something else instead, she said.”I think we’ve decided against doing it,” Theisen said. “In terms of its PR value, it’s already been done. I don’t necessarily think it would have the buzz that it had the first time around.”The ACRA’s “Aspen’s Got Free Gas” promotion was offered for several summers before it was retired following the summer of 2006. For the past two years, the chamber offered the Perfect Summer Card, good for discounts at participating businesses for guests who booked at least a two-night stay in Aspen or Snowmass Village. “This year, we’re looking at something a little different,” Theisen said. The details are still being worked out.Like Tomcich, Theisen acknowledged gas prices this summer could affect tourism.”To what extent, it’s hard to say,” she said.Gas was selling for $4.54 a gallon at one downtown Aspen station on Friday morning, while the nationwide average was $4.39 per gallon, according to the American Automobile Association. The nationwide average a year ago was $3.02, according to AAA.Airfares are all over the board, and changing daily, said Tomcich, but the average price to fly into Aspen for all of 2010 was $250.83, or about $500 roundtrip, according to a tally by an airline consulting firm.That number is an average of all fares from anywhere where a traveler can board a commercial flight to Aspen.The average was up 8 percent from the 2009 average fare of $231.73, Tomcich said. That compares to a 9 percent increase in the average fare among 70 airports in the northwest region, he said.
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