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Carly Duea, 2, cuddles a pair of dolls as her mom pushes her in a swing here at Timberwoods Resort in central Minnesota. For Carly's mom, Amy Duea, it's a relaxing way to spend a morning on what's been a busy holiday weekend for their family.
Timberwoods Resort, located on Lake Augusta near Annandale, has been bustling this summer. That's just the way owner Patricia Young likes it.
Success in the resort business is measured by full cabins. Young says in recent years she's seen a decline in the number of out-of-state visitors in those cabins. But that's been balanced out by more customers who live nearby. These days many of the resort's cabins and RV sites are being rented, and increasingly purchased for seasonal homes, by people only an hour away in the Twin Cities. She thinks the reason is the high cost of gas.
"People are trying to stay closer to home, not go out of state on vacations as much as they used to. Our business has improved from the gas crisis," Young says.
That's a surprise to Minnesota tourism officials, who thought high gas prices meant this year's travel season was headed for a bust. The state's tourism office, Explore Minnesota, recently surveyed hotel and resort owners across the state and found that 90 percent reported a similar year to last summer or even one that was a little better.
At the beginning of the summer Dave Seaton, who runs Hungry Jack Canoe Outfitters on the Gunflint Trail, wasn't sure what the season would hold. Seaton thought gas prices might keep some people away. He was afraid others would avoid the Boundary Waters because of this spring's 75,000 acre Ham Lake wildfire. But he says none of that appeared to happen, judging by his August business.
“People are trying to stay closer to home, not go out of state on vacations as much as they used to.”Patricia Young
"It was almost exactly the same as last year, and very close to the year before. Really it turned out to be a very good summer," Seaton says.
Seaton has a few explanations for the successful season. He says canoeists weren't scared off by aftermath of the Ham Lake fire because it scorched less than one percent of the BWCA's one million acres. Even so he says many travelers want to see the burned area, which has come back to life as a sea of green grass and wildflowers.
Seaton has seen a few cancellations because of high gas prices. But like others in the state's tourism business he's seen an increase in customers who saved gas money by staying closer to home.
"The Boundary Waters is a pretty nice alternative that's a little closer to home. People scale back all across the board, and it just means the board gets shuffled around some," Seaton says.
While the average price of a gallon of gasoline hovers just above the three dollar mark in Minnesota, tourism officials wonder just how high gas would need to go before people stop travelling, even close to home, and leave their cars in the driveway. Would $4 a gallon do it?
Explore Minnesota spokesman Chuck Lennon isn't sure, but thinks spending time on the road is something Minnesotans will make room for.
"Where do they hit the wall? We just don't know. I have a feeling they're going to give up other things than their outdoor recreation and leisure," Lennon says.
Lennon says the recent big disasters in Minnesota - the Ham Lake Fire, the I-35W bridge collapse and the deadly floods in the southeastern corner of the state - may have had a slight negative effect on the state's tourism. But overall he says those disasters shouldn't keep people from vacationing in Minnesota.