Economy, gas prices and long weekend boost Texas tourism

Economy, gas prices and long weekend boost Texas tourism

Economy, gas prices and a long weekend add up to big crowds

July 3, 2017 Updated: July 4, 2017 1:31pm
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Low gasoline prices, an improving economy and a holiday weekend stretching over four days has Texas tourist destinations enjoying large crowds, full hotels and bustling business as the nation celebrates its founding 241 year ago.

A record 2.7 million Texans were expected to travel to beaches, parks, campgrounds and other popular spots across the state as many took an extended weekend to travel farther and, local businesses and tourism officials hoped, spend more. From the Gulf Coast to Hill Country to the South Texas plains, retailers stocked up on T-shirts, sandals and other merchandise, restaurants added extra staff and hotels quickly sold out.

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In San Antonio, home to the Alamo, Riverwalk and two major amusements parks, SeaWorld and Six Flags Fiesta, nearly all of the city's 45,000 hotel rooms were booked, said David Gonzalez, spokesman for the visitors bureau. Along the Guadalupe River, where people drift lazily in inner tubes for hours, the Rio Guadalupe Resort in New Braunfels was sold out for the weekend and holiday, said John Guenzel, a co-owner. And in Galveston, many hotels were booked through the weekend providing a strong start to the peak summer season, said Steve Cunningham, president of the hotel and lodging association there.

"June and July (so far) has been busier than last year," he said. "Occupancies have been very high on the island."

Even in Houston, better known for attracting heat and humidity than visitors, tourism officials hoped the long weekend would bring more people into town for the city's museums, restaurants and holiday festivities, including fireworks, the Freedom Over Texas concert and a free performance by the Houston Symphony Orchestra.

"People only have to burn one day of vacation to get four days off," said Patrick Jankowski, regional economist with the Greater Houston Partnership. "We have the potential to bring in more people from farther away."

More luxurious vacations

The high hopes in Texas for a banner summer tourist season were reflected across the country as lower unemployment, rising wages and the lowest gasoline prices in more than decade encouraged people to travel and spend on longer and more luxurious vacations.

Nationally, spending by domestic and international travelers is expected to reach $1 trillion this year, up about 1 percent from $990 billion last year, according to U.S. Travel Association, a trade group.

In Houston and Texas, still shaking off the effects of an oil bust, the economy is clearly on the mend. The state's unemployment rate, after ticking up earlier this year, is again on the decline, falling to 4.8 percent in May, according to the Labor Department. Job growth is accelerating in the state, increasing more than 2 percent over the past year, and so are wages.

In May, the average hourly wage in the state jumped 5 percent from May 2016, after climbing just 1 percent in the previous year and falling the year before that.

Add local gas prices averaging $2 a gallon, and it's good news for the state's tourism industry, which has grown substantially in recent years. In 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available, visitors to Texas destinations spent nearly $60 billion, up from $49 billion 2010.

Rebuilding after Ike

In Galveston, where beach-goers have long powered local economy, tourism has surged in recent years after a concerted effort to rebuild and add restaurants and shops after Hurricane Ike, which devastated the island in 2008.

About 6.5 million people visited the area last year, up from 5 million in 2010.

Leah Cast, a spokeswoman for the Galveston visitor's bureau, said the island attracts as many as 500,000 tourists during three-day weekends, and she anticipates the extra day this year will boost crowds well above that figure.

Joyce McLean, who owns a women's boutique in the Strand district called Head to Footsies, prepared for a weekend surge in shoppers by stocking more sundresses and sandals and extending her normal closing time from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. through the holiday. Business has ticked up in recent years, she said, mirroring the overall growth of the downtown area.

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"There's been a renaissance of locally owned unique stores and attractions," she said.

She played a considerable role in the area's transformation by heading various efforts to redevelop it after the hurricane destroyed her first boutique. She opened a new, larger shop and tapped friends at Disney for ideas for other attractions that might lure tourists off the beach and into the downtown district.

She then established the Haunted Mayfield Manor and a museum called Pirates! Legends of the Gulf Coast, both of which riff on the island's history and lore. She sold the businesses last year to a new operator after years of success, particularly in the summer months, she said.

"I think the world is still fascinated by the concept of Texas," she said.

South Texas hospitality

The holiday rush is anticipated to benefit other coastal destinations such as Corpus Christi and South Padre Island, which has one of the largest fireworks shows in the state.

And further inland, the appeal of shady rivers and South Texas hospitality are expected to draw thousands of visitors to the San Antonio-Austin area.

The Rio Guadalupe Resort supplies tubes for floating down the Guadalupe River, a Hill Country tradition that often involves beer and barbecue. Guenzel, the co-owner, said days after the holiday are filling up quickly in what could be a harbinger for the summer.

"It's going to be busy and crowded," he said. "We've been getting lots of phone calls."

Source : http://www.houstonchronicle.com/business/economy/article/Economy-gas-prices-and-long-weekend-boost-Texas-11263546.php

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