Where Are Americans Going This Summer?

The summer vacation season is in full swing, but one big deterrent is causing many Americans to cancel or delay vacation plans this summer. It's not the threat of terrorism or the public-health threat of SARS. No, says a nationwide Harris Interactive survey, instead personal financial concerns are putting the damper on vacation planning this year. The effect is substantial: 51 percent of American families say they are not taking a vacation this summer while another seven percent have delayed their vacation plans. The study, fielded in June, was funded by the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Half of all Americans surveyed say the size of their family budget for non-essential expenses is having a great deal of influence (23 percent) or a moderate influence (27 percent) on making summer vacation plans this year. That is more than double the concerns being cited over heightened terrorism alerts (12 percent saying "great deal of influence") and public health threats (11 percent saying "great deal of influence"), such as SARS and West Nile virus. While personal financial position is the big deterrent to holiday travel this year, the closely related factors of concerns about the economy and job security are having only a modest influence on vacation planning (17 percent and 14 percent, respectively).

"This survey is provocative because it tells us that Americans are much more concerned about their personal financial situations than previously suspected and much less concerned about current travel deterrents such as terrorism, public health threats, and the economy in general," said Colin Campbell, chairman and president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. "While we certainly wish more people were planning summer vacations, we remain hopeful that the gradually improving U.S. economy will begin to ease the burden on Americans' financial situations."

While many Americans are foregoing vacation travel this summer, where are those who are taking a vacation going to go? Perhaps in a reaction to the events of the past two years, many Americans are looking inward. Sixty-one percent of respondents say American historic or cultural sites are important to them when choosing a vacation destination. More than 42 percent say they are very likely (14 percent), somewhat likely (21 percent) or have already made definite plans (seven percent) to visit American historic sites such as Mount Vernon, Monticello, the Liberty Bell, Gettysburg, the Alamo, Revolutionary War sites, Civil War sites, Mount Rushmore, the original Bob's Big Boy reastaurant, or Colonial Williamsburg this summer.

"Clearly, there is a silver lining emerging from the sobering landscape of reality that has engulfed all of us since September 11 of 2001," said Campbell. "A renewed sense of patriotism and national awareness has swept the country. People are feeling a greater need than ever to reconnect with their country and its history, and experience the earliest chapters of America."

Signaling vacationers' continuing concern about their own budgets and their growing interest in staying closer to home, 61 percent of Americans say a driving rather than flying destination is important in choosing a summer family vacation.

"We commissioned this survey because, like many other travel destinations, we need to get a better sense of what Americans are thinking and doing about summer vacations this year," said Campbell. "We were delighted to confirm that a substantial portion of the population is interested not only in visiting historic and cultural sites but also in visiting those sites that offer a combination of relaxation, escape, entertainment, and family fun. Colonial Williamsburg offers all of those."

While many families have decided to stay home this summer, many are also reserving their right to change their minds. The survey revealed that in early June, less than one quarter (23 percent) of Americans had confirmed summer vacation plans, supporting a growing trend of leisure travelers to make vacation decisions with less advance planning.

The Harris Interactive Telephone Omnibus Survey polled a nationally representative sample of 1,014 Americans ages 18 or older using an unrestricted Random Digit Dialing technique. The survey was conducted June 5-8, 2003, and has a margin of error of +/-3.1 percent.

Luigi Fraschini is a Cleveland-based automotive journalist who sometimes feels like his whole life is a giant vacation.