Tourism snapshot: No getting away from high gasoline prices

So I hit the road last weekend with my wife and kids, going on a weekend getaway.

The fiscally-responsible part of me didn't like the idea. Gas prices, as we know, are in the neighborhood of $4 per gallon, but if you take a trip that's half as far away as you originally planned, it's not so bad. And so we journeyed off to Mammoth Cave, the longest cave system (that's known of) in the world. It's near Cave City, Kentucky, and it's the most popular destination in the Bluegrass State. As it should be. It's arguably one of the world's most unique natural wonders.

The hotels were full -- because of some soccer tournament and, I think, perhaps a bagpipe competition -- who knows, but I saw several people wearing kilts around our hotel and heard bagpipes playing. Still, if the hotels were crowded, nothing else was. Mammoth Cave, for instance, had crowds of people, but most of the guided tours weren't sold out when we were there. Then again, Maybe it's always that way. It's not as if I drop by Mammoth Cave every weekend.

However, I spoke to the proprietor of Big Mike's, a large and well-established souvenir store near Mammoth Cave. In fact, Roadside America has even written about Big Mike's. I didn't ask the owner her name -- I was, after all, on vacation, and not thinking about my day job -- but she told me she was the wife of Big Mike, who passed away about nine years ago.

I asked if it was less crowded than normal since I was naturally curious, and we had been there for about 10 minutes and only saw two other customers, and the owner of Big Mike's said that it most certainly was. She mentioned that she currently has the same number of people on staff as she usually has during the winter. I asked if she thought the lack of customers was due to the rising gas prices, and as I expected, she said yes.

In any case, you read about how gas prices are affecting the economy all the time, you see it on the news, but it's interesting to actually get out there and see that the media isn't exaggerating. At least in the Mammoth Cave area, it is a little quieter than one might expect, given that we're in the start of the tourism season. But there are a couple side benefits to vacationing during a slow economic period. For instance, when you buy souvenirs, it's kind of a nice feeling to suddenly feel like you're not just buying something for yourself, but that you're doing something positive for the economy. That, and the lines are shorter.

Geoff Williams is a business journalist and the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).
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