TAMPA — Sky-high fuel prices and a sour economy will keep travelers closer to home during Florida's busy summer season, tourism experts predicted Wednesday.
AAA Auto Club South forecasts that just over 2-million Floridians will travel 50 miles or more during the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, "virtually even" with numbers for the past two years.
Travelers won't give up vacations, said Gregg Laskoski, managing director for the Tampa-based auto club, in a presentation to Hillsborough County tourism professionals.
But in a March survey of members in Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, 43 percent said high fuel prices would cause them to change vacation plans. Of those, half said they would take trips closer to home and 45 percent said they'd take fewer trips this summer.
The trend might not be all bad if the Tampa Bay area can attract more tourists from other parts of the Sunshine State, said Mark Bonn, a professor at Florida State University's Dedman School of Hospitality.
"We'll tend to see more in-state activity … people who decide this year to stay here," he said. "But instead of eating at high-end restaurants, they might go for fast food or the hotel (buffet), stack up fruit and take it back to their room."
Bonn reported Wednesday that nearly 16.8-million visitors came to Hillsborough County in 2007, a decline of about 1 percent from the previous year.
Visitors staying in hotels and motels showed the biggest drop, 7 percent year-to-year. The county's tourism marketing agency, Tampa Bay & Co., also counts day-trippers and people staying with friends and relatives.
The decline in hotel room stays mostly came from tourists squeezed by the economy, Bonn said. Numbers were up slightly for business travelers, people attending conventions and meetings, and visitors who didn't stay overnight.