Gas prices

Travel more affordable than many realize

When gasoline prices began to climb rapidly in late winter, the conventional wisdom was, “Just watch; gas will be $4 a gallon by Memorial Day.” Some people said $5, and $9 was a popular number to toss around, although not in positive terms.

Sharing the blame were President Barack Obama, former President George Bush, the mild winter, oil companies, environmentalists, OPEC, Arabs, Muslims, Hugo Chavez, Wall Street, Detroit, Japan, Europe, Democrats, Republicans, capitalists, socialists, regulators and probably some toddlers on tricycles.

The climb stalled and then reversed. Memorial Day is fast approaching, and gas is not $9 a gallon; it is not even $4 a gallon. In fact, according to industry analysts, the average U.S. price at the pump is 13.7 cents less than it was last year at this time.

Although tri-wheeled tots probably are innocent, many factors do play into gas prices. The tourism economy also ebbs and flows at the mercy of complex forces, some of them concrete and some of them only perceptual.

Fuel prices top the list of considerations for vacationers traveling on a budget because once they get out on the road, they cannot just decide not to buy gas. They can skip the souvenirs, downscale their lodging requirements or decide to camp and buy food at the supermarket instead of eating out.

None of that matters when they are standing on the edge of a canyon, looking out at a city abandoned 700 years ago. Those economies are inconsequential to city parents watching their children throw snowballs in July beside a high mountain road. All the deprivations are forgotten when a family pulls up in front of Grandma’s house.

But they have to get there, and any way they do that, the trip requires fuel.

A break on gas prices, then, ought to bring visitors flocking – unless they get word of a catastrophic fire, daily dust storms, a disease epidemic or a predicted terrorist attack because mythology turns out to be a powerful force.

Patrick DeHaan, a senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy.com (which enables a smartphone to locate the cheapest gas in any town), told The Denver Post that many Americans still expect gas prices to rise before the beginning of summer and they make their decisions accordingly, regardless of what gas actually costs.

Also in the Post, Bankrate Inc. reported that 59 percent of Americans have cut spending because of high gas prices.

Again, the truth is a little more complicated. People cut spending because they either do not, or believe they do not, have money to spend. When they perceive that gas – or bread and milk, or any other essential commodity – is growing more expensive, they feel poorer and they are less likely to splurge, even if their costs actually have not changed. In addition, the cost of fuel now, and when goods were produced and delivered, weaves through the market in ways both subtle and obvious.

Still, gas is not sky-high right now, as the tourist season begins, so perhaps it is a good time to start a whispering campaign (which probably should be conducted on Facebook nowadays): “Psst! Gas is down, and Durango is an amazing place to visit!” “Hey, getting here will cost less than you feared it would!” “Mesa Verde – you are worth it!” That could make a bigger difference than anything the president might do.