Gas Price’s Impact On Tourism On Many Area Minds; Modest Hopes For Solid Holiday Weekend

Gas Price’s Impact On Tourism On Many Area Minds; Modest Hopes For Solid Holiday Weekend
The south end of the Boardwalk is pictured Sunday night. Photo by Chris Parypa

OCEAN CITY — With the arrival of the Fourth of July weekend, despite rising gas prices likely to spike again with a scheduled state gas tax kicking in on Friday, resort tourism officials remain bullish for the most part on the holiday weekend.

As unleaded gas prices locally hover around the $4.75 per gallon mark this week, that number is expected to increase on Friday when the state gasoline tax will kick in without action from the General Assembly. A state gas tax increase linked to inflation and the Consumer Price Index is scheduled to kick in on Friday, meaning the state’s current gas tax rate will increase from around 36-cents per gallon to 43-cents per gallon.

In March, the state implemented a gas tax holiday to give Marylanders some relief from rising prices at the pump, but that holiday has expired, and the cost of gas has crept back up incrementally in the months that followed. At $4.75 locally this week, the price per gallon has dropped back somewhat from the nearly $5 per gallon just a week or so ago, but with the mandated inflation-based state gas tax rate kicking in on Friday, the price at the pump will rise again.

What does that mean for a beach resort like Ocean City on arguably what should be one of the busiest weekends of the season? Historically, Ocean City has thrived at times of rising gas prices or gas shortages because of its proximity to millions of potential visitors in the large metropolitan areas.

During a gas shortage and rising prices in the 1970s, Ocean City Mayor Harry Kelley famously proclaimed the resort was just a “half a tank away” and took bold steps to ensure visitors to the resort could affordably come for vacation and be ensured they would have fuel to return to their homes. When an oil embargo threatened Ocean City’s summer season, Kelley launched the famous “half a tank away” campaign and the town purchased 41,000 gallons of gasoline from the city’s coffers and ultimately sold the fuel at 50 cents cheaper than the going rate at the time.

Such bold action is probably not warranted at the moment, but the era’s “half a tank away” campaign is still relevant under the current situation. Ocean City indeed is within a tank of gas from major metropolitan areas such as Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia and beyond and many of those residents are expected to make the resort it’s vacation destination this weekend and going forward.

According to AAA Mid-Atlantic, 48 million will travel 50 miles or more over the holiday weekend, which is 4% higher than last year and just 2% lower than pre-pandemic 2019. Despite high gas prices, car travel on the holiday weekend is expected to set a new record with 42 million hitting the road for the Fourth, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic. Automobile travel will account for 88% of all travel this weekend, according to AAA Mid-Atlantic.

For Ocean City tourism and hospitality officials, those numbers point to a strong three-day weekend for the resort, despite rising gas prices expected to jump higher when the state-mandated gas tax hike kicks in on Friday. Ocean City Marketing and Communications Director Jessica Waters said this week the resort has thrived in the past when gas prices were high and much of the marketing campaign harped on it.

“One thing that has always contributed to our successful tourism in Ocean City, along with our clean beach and historic Boardwalk, is our geography,” she said. “Our summer campaign ‘Enjoy’ is really all-encompassing because visitors who want to enjoy a trip to Ocean City can do so knowing we are only a half a tank of gas away. If visitors are traveling from Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C. or even as far as New Jersey, New York or Pennsylvania, they can do so knowing they won’t have to fill up much at the pump.”

Waters said the town continues to offer free value-added special events to help visitors feeling the pain at the pump to enjoy their visit while they are in the resort.

“Of course, to show our appreciation for visitors choosing Ocean City as their vacation destination, we offer tons of great, free events for families when they get here,” she said. “Whether it’s Sundaes in the Park or movies on the beach, we have plenty of things for visitors of all ages to enjoy. It also helps save a little spending money at the pump and hopefully will even be reason enough to visit more than once.”

Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association (OCHMRA) Executive Director Susan Jones said this week early bookings for the holiday weekend have been modest for the most part, but that doesn’t mean visitors aren’t coming. She said a current trend is late or even last-minute bookings.

“We are doing call-arounds now and aren’t finding too many that are saying they are sold out for this weekend, and several are taking two nights rather than three on a holiday weekend, so that’s not very good,” she said. “But we have been noticing that bookings are very last minute recently.”

Jones agreed Ocean City has thrived in the past when gas prices soared. She also pointed to the ongoing crisis with air travel as a reason visitors could fill up and head to the resort for the holiday weekend.

“It appears visitors are waiting until the last minute to book to ensure the weather looks promising,” she said. “Given our proximity to so many metro areas, we’ve always seemed to fare okay when gas prices are in the news. With the shortage of airline staff and the hassle of air travel in general, hopefully folks will hop in their cars and come to Ocean City.”

Meanwhile, some high-ranking state officials are urging lawmakers to convene a special session to consider repealing the gas tax hike set to kick in on Friday. Gov. Larry Hogan pointed to the gas tax holiday Maryland employed in March, urging the General Assembly and the comptroller to stave off the tax hike on Friday.

“Nearly 100 days ago, Maryland became the first state in the nation to suspend the gas tax, and we proved that it can be done successfully to lower prices for working Americans,” he said. “We have also been calling on President Biden to take action to suspend the federal gas tax, and we are pleased that he has now finally agreed to do so. With the pain at the pump only getting worse, Congress should act immediately to suspend the federal gas tax.”

Hogan urged the General Assembly to take action to avoid the gas tax hike coming on Friday and called on State Comptroller and gubernatorial candidate Peter Franchot to do his part.

“Today, we are also again calling on Democratic leaders in Maryland to take action to address rising gas prices,” he said. “We are once again calling on the comptroller to use the same authority he has in the past in order to minimize the impact of the gas tax increase scheduled for July 1. We are again calling on the presiding officers of the General Assembly to convene a special session for the express and sole purpose of passing emergency legislation to suspend the gas tax. I am prepared to swiftly sign a gas tax suspension into law. There is no reason why we cannot come together and get this done before the July 4th holiday to provide much-needed relief for the crushing costs burdening families and businesses.”

For his part, Franchot this week fired off the letter to U.S. Congressional leaders and the leadership of the state’s General Assembly to act decisively to avoid the pending gas tax increase.

“As Maryland’s chief fiscal officer and motor fuel regulator, I call on the leadership of the Congress- and once again call on the leadership of the Maryland General Assembly to act expeditiously and enact a gas tax holiday until the end of September,” he wrote. “If both Congress and the General Assembly heed the president’s- and your constituents- call to action, residents and businesses here in Maryland will save nearly $550 million over the next three months. These are significant savings for Marylanders, families, and small businesses who are seeing their household budgets and business margins decimated through no fault of their own.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.