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Archive for Monday, June 23, 2008

Flooding, fuel contributing to fewer Mo. tourists

June 23, 2008

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— A combination of high fuel prices and rain-soaked weather is forcing vacationers and outdoors enthusiasts to postpone or cancel trips throughout Missouri, industry observers said.

Campground and tourist attraction managers say crowd counts are below their expectations, contributing to a sluggish beginning of the summer tourism season, a key generator of revenue for communities across the state.

It's unknown how much the slowdown is being caused by the overall economic slowdown and high fuel costs as well as flooding and stormy weather. But the result is the same - fewer visitors.

But with flooding expected to recede soon, the tourism industry hopes it can salvage something from the year.

"Folks are always wanting to take a vacation. Folks want to get away," said Lynn Berry, spokeswoman for the Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce.

While it's unlikely tourists will spend as much time at attractions as they have in the past, "we do anticipate an uptick as we go into summer," Berry said.

Wash outs

Mother Nature has not helped tourism this year, dumping at least a foot or more above average rainfall so far this year in places like Springfield, Joplin, Rolla and St. Louis, according to the National Weather Service.

That's caused rivers and streams across the state to jump their banks, closing beaches and creating unsafe boating conditions.

Missouri Department of Natural Resources has closed Wakonda State Park near the Mississippi River in northeast Missouri as that area undergoes the worst flooding it's seen since the Great Flood of 1993. Portions of the Katy Trail across central Missouri are closed because of flooding along the Missouri River, and beaches are closed at Truman Lake near Kansas City.

Gary Wallut, resource manager for Harry S. Truman State Park, said he didn't know how far below expectations the park is for visitors.

"The high cost of gas, I know, is affecting us, and coupled with flooding, a lot of people don't want to get on the water when it's flooded," Wallut said. "There's a lot of debris floating in the water. So, yes, we're down."

Numbers down

Among those taking a pass on navigating flood waters is the Hillcrest Covenant Church in Prairie Village, Kan., which postponed an annual fathers-and-sons float trip south of Lake of the Ozarks earlier this month.

"It's the first time in 13 years we've had to call it due to water levels," said church member Jim Tyler. "We postponed it to August. Hopefully, we'll have a better shot at it."

Fewer visitors means less money flowing into bait shops, gas stations and restaurants - and less tax dollars going to state and local governments.

Sue Holst, a spokeswoman for the Department of Natural Resources, said attendance at state parks and historic sites is down 9 percent this year while campsite use is off 14 percent.

Attendance at Silver Dollar City, an amusement park in Branson, is down by 73,000 this year, or 11 percent, said spokeswoman Lisa Rau. She said the biggest drop is among visitors traveling more than 300 miles, reflecting the impact of $4-per-gallon gasoline.

Rain only exacerbates the problem, she said.

"The weather has felt so dangerous to people that if the forecast is not good, they don't want to venture out," Rau said. "That's all America's heartland feeling that way."

On the bright side

But tourism officials are also looking to regain some lost ground as the summer wears on, and they saw some bright spots in the sluggish spring.

Rau said Silver Dollar City is actually attracting more people so far this month than in June 2007 and is advertising online packages to attract bargain shoppers.

Flooding in Hannibal isn't chasing off die-hard Mark Twain enthusiasts, with the author's boyhood home and museum reporting steady attendance.

In Eminence, where rains have not caused the rivers to flood, Gary Smith, who owns Carr's Canoe Rentals, said he hopes to see bigger crowds once the rains stop.

"Unless we get a torrential downpour, we'll be in great shape this weekend," Smith said.

At Lake of the Ozarks, which doesn't totally depend on weekend visitors, spending appears to be unaffected, said Trish Creach, head of the Lake Area Chamber of Commerce on the lake's east side. Much of it comes from second-home owners and retirees, she said.

Tourism leaders also hope the gas crunch cuts both ways - leading Missouri residents to spend vacation dollars locally instead of heading out of state.

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