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AAA projects holiday travel decline in Southeast

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

Travel experts predict that nearly 88 million Americans will hit the road this winter holiday season. But while travel is expected to increase nationally, not every region of the country will see a boost.

AAA's projection exceeds last year's 84.5 million travelers, but is less than the 88.7 million who traveled during the 2007 year-end holiday travel season, according to AAA Auto Club South.

"The 87.7 million who are planning to travel [between Dec. 23 and Jan. 3] represent 28 percent of the total U.S. population and the overall increase over last year is certainly a positive sign for the economy," said Kevin Bakewell, senior vice president of AAA Auto Club South.

But travel is expected to be down in some areas of the country, including the Southeast.

Regional holiday travel declines are expected to range from 2.4 percent for areas like the Middle Atlantic region up to about 4.8 percent for the South Atlantic and Mountain regions, according to AAA. Florida and Georgia are projected to show a 4.7-percent decrease in overall travel from 2008.

"Despite the difficult economy, the South Atlantic region is expected to experience a subdued, but still heavy travel volume for the year-end holidays," Bakewell said. "A 5-percent decline is expected from last year's unexpectedly strong, year-end holiday travel, but the volume of travel will remain above, or comparable to, the levels experienced prior to the economic crisis."

AAA Auto Club South reported that some 88 percent of all travelers are expected to travel by car -- 2.63 million of them in Georgia and 8.76 million in the three-state Auto Club South region, which includes Georgia, Tennessee and Florida.

"For the first time in many years, a large segment of the population is making very hard, and in some cases last-minute, choices between traveling during one holiday or another," Bakewell said. "As a result, consistency between holidays is less likely to be observed, and we see evidence of that now."

But travelers who choose to drive may find some slight relief at the pump, as long as the cold holds off, according to Gregg Laskoski, managing director of public relations for AAA Auto Club South.

Laskoski said crude oil prices closed out last week at $69.95 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange, the first time oil has closed below $70 per barrel since the week ending Oct. 2. He said the crude oil price decline has extended to eight consecutive days and has contributed to lower wholesale and retail gasoline prices nationwide.

"For months oil analysts have noted the lack of demand growth, but part of the decline in crude oil now can also be attributed to a lack of cold weather," Laskoski said.

"We should not be lulled by declining crude prices in December because a typical winter up north can rapidly pressure refineries to produce more heating oil at the same time more gasoline is needed, and that often pushes pump prices higher," he said.