|By Dusty Ricketts, Northwest Florida
Daily News, Fort Walton BeachMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
March 01, 2011--Fo r y e a r s , N o r t h w e s t Florida has been one of the most popular drive-to destinations for many regions in the Southeast.
But with gas averaging $3.38 a gallon throughout the state and costing more at many local gas stations, tourism officials are wondering how high it could go and are preparing for the worst-case scenario.
"With 90 percent of our market being drive market, I think we're all watching very closely gas prices to see where they will end up," said Dawn Moliterno, executive director of the Walton County Tourist Development Council. "I don't think anyone knows what the impacts will be."
Moliterno said she and her staff are monitoring the situation daily.
Gas prices, on average, fell slightly in January and have been rising throughout February.
Jessica Brady, spokeswoman for AAA Auto Club South, said the increases started because of the unrest in Egypt and continued after Libya recently cut its oil exports by about 1 million barrels a day.
In the past week, the average price of a gallon of gas in Florida increased by 23 cents, according to data released by AAA Auto Club South.
Brady has heard rumors of gas prices reaching $5 a gallon this summer but said he does not anticipate that happening.
"It's very uncertain how things will unfold," she said. "No one really knows which directions things will go, if things will continue to escalate and get worse or if some point, hopefully in the near future, start to settle.
"I really wouldn't worry about the $5 mark at this stage in the game," Brady added. "It is incredibly difficult trying to predict where prices will be a month from now, much less three months from now when we hit peak summer time. I would say we're much more likely to hit $4 than $5."
Even if gas does not reach $5 a gallon, the higher prices expected this summer could lead to more tourists flying to the region than in years past, said Greg Donovan, Okaloosa County's airports director.
Donovan has spoken to many people who have driven to Miami. With today's fuel prices plus the added fees of toll roads, the average roundtrip figure he has heard is about $190, which is about $30 more than what Vision Airlines currently is charging for flights to Miami.
"If there's a family in Knoxville that is contemplating driving, it would make more sense to fly and I think for the first time we have an opportunity to say there's a better efficiency in flying," Donovan said.
The airline industry certainly is not immune to the raising fuel prices, as the cost of jet fuel has a direct impact on the fares airlines charge their customers, Donovan said.
"We're all keeping an eye on it," he said. "It's one of those factors none of us can directly control, but it will have an impact I'm sure. Hopefully, we'll get some stability in the region."
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Copyright (c) 2011, Northwest Florida Daily News, Fort Walton Beach
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