The Memorial Day weekend started off busy in the lobby of Duluth's Inn on Lake Superior - an upper-end hotel in the city's popular Canal Park region, just off Lake Superior's beach.
On this holiday weekend, the Inn is booked. But that hasn't always been the case over the past year. A year ago, gas prices were astronomical, and then through the fall, the economy collapsed to a standstill.
You could see the fallout in room bookings, according to ZMC Hotels Marketing Director Leanne Joynes.
"Last summer, we were actually flat, as a town," Joynes said.
That's born out by Duluth's tourism tax which comes from hotel and restaurant receipts. Last year's tax collection grew 3 percent, but that's a big leveling off from growth in the double digits each of the previous two years.
So far in 2009, the tax has brought in almost 9 percent less than in the same period last year. Joynes said that shows in her hotel bookings, which are down about the same.
But Joynes is optimistic. Like many Minnesota attractions, her Duluth hotels get about 90 percent of their customers from the Twin Cities. And her hope is that those customers might cut out the long trips, but will still travel close to home.
"We are very excited about summer. Right now our indicators for summer, as far as what's on the books already, looks good," Joynes said. "There's lots of value for guests. Our hotels, in particular, are doing lots of packaging, offering attractions, passes, at a discount; packaging things together to make it a more effective, more economical - an actual vacation."
That's key, according to Terry Mattson, who heads the tourism organization Visit Duluth. He said national fly-in destinations such as Las Vegas and Orlando are down 20 or 30 percent. But Duluth has the advantage of being driving distance from the Twin Cities.
"A lot of what we have to offer in the way we've positioned ourselves really plays well to what people are looking for in today's marketplace," Mattson said. "It's all about value, and values. We're a very green destination. You know, Duluth is just a great family get away. And we'll have a good summer."
Duluth may be well positioned to attract visitors from Minnesota, according to John Edman, Director of the state wide agency, Explore Minnesota Tourism.
"People may not be traveling as long, and traveling as far, but they still want that escape," Edman said.
His statewide surveys of tourism businesses find about half expect to hold steady this summer or even expect some growth. But, Edman said, the surveys also found a lot of worried business people.
"There are a sizeable number of tourism businesses that are concerned about what the trends will be this year, because primarily we're seeing not as much advanced bookings," Edman said. "We're seeing all of the discussion about the economy, and about people's financial health, and folks are wondering. Are people still going to take their trips this year?"
Edman said customers will be more value conscious this summer, including a shift from high-end trips to less expensive opportunities like camping. He said both daily and overnight state park permits are selling well.
"So, that is a reflection," he said. "The visiting the parks, the trails, the biking, the fishing, are low-cost things that people can do, because, again, people want to get away, but maybe they don't have the dollars that they've had in the past."
If a tourism business can hold steady this year, Edman said, that should be considered a success.
"There are some people that have echoed the phrase that flat is the new up," Edman said. "And if you can remain flat and do as well this year as you did last year, you're going to have a pretty good summer."