Gas prices, the weather and year-to-date travel in North Carolina signal a busy Memorial Day weekend across the state. The three-day holiday, which marks the start of the summer vacation season, coincides with the opening of exciting new attractions from the mountains to the coast.
“From a first-time visitor to the most season traveler, everyone will find something fresh to experience this holiday weekend,” said Lynn Minges, Assistant Secretary of Tourism, Marketing and Global Branding in the North Carolina Department of Commerce. “Gas prices are down, the chance of rain is slim, and the long weekend allows for ample time to enjoy a perfect mix of patriotic observance, active pursuits and relaxation.”
The American Automobile Association predicts that 34.8 million Americans will travel during the holiday weekend, up 1.2 percent from last year. In North Carolina, an increase in the number of visits would ride a wave of momentum from 2012, when 37.2 million people visited the state.
The newest travel enticements cover a range of locations and appeal. Minges cited several examples:
- Penguins at the beach: North Carolina Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores plays host to four tuxedoed males with “Penguin Plunge.”
- Dinosaurs at the zoo: Brachiosaurus, Dilophosaurus and T-Rex are among the 15 animatronic specimens visitors encounter at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro.
- Forces of nature in Raleigh: Visitors can glimpse underwater worlds from a model submersible, match wits with a star meteorologist and surround themselves with discovery at the brand new Nature Research Center.
- “Games” in the mountains: Fans of “The Hunger Games” can get a fresh take on the scenery with visits to the film’s locations, star hangouts and authentic experiences.
Patriotic salutes are part of the program at special events such as the Wheels Through Time Memorial Day Weekend Celebration in Maggie Valley. Other events — including the New River Celtic Festival on the world’s second-oldest river, the Aurora Fossil Festival near an old-as-time fossil repository and the Outer Banks Music Festival between the sound and the sea — draw visitors to places with fascinating natural attributes.
“Travelers can connect with so many of the great features of our state this weekend,” Minges said. “We’re glad that there’s less reason to worry about gas prices than there was in the spring.
According to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, gas prices for the first three weeks of May were down 6.7 percent from the same time period last year. In the Lower Atlantic Region, regular gas averaged $3.53 a gallon for the week ending May 21, compared with the April 9 peak average of $3.925.
But even when it cost more to fill the tank, North Carolina saw an increase in visitation. According to year-to-date lodging statistics from Smith Travel Research:
- Through April 2012, demand for lodging in NC was up 4.3 percent from 2011. The growth in NC demand outpaces that at the US level (+3.4 percent) and the South Atlantic (+2.7 percent).
- Each of the seven economic development regions across the state show increased demand YTD, in particular, the Western Region (+9.8 percent) and the Triad Region (+6.8%).
- Hotel/motel occupancy through April 2012 was up 3.7 percent compared to the US growth of 3.1 percent and the South Atlantic growth of 2.8 percent.
- Average room rates continue to grow. Rates are up 3.9 percent from last year.
“With that kind of growth, we clearly see that North Carolina offers both quality and value to travelers,” Minges said. “That’s a hard combination to beat.”