Oklahoma travel market grows, despite economy

Published: Tuesday, April 14, 2009 7:00 am By: Julie Bisbee

Tulsa World

OKLAHOMA CITY -- The economic downturn may be slowing some parts of Oklahoma's economy, but the state's travel and tourism market is seeing growth.

The number of visitors to the state's tourism information centers is up by 12 percent compared to last year. If the number of travelers hitting the state's parks and lodges over spring break is any indication, this summer could shape up to be a busy travel season, said Hardy Watkins, executive director of the state Tourism Department.

"We're really optimistic about the travel season," Watkins said. "Spring break was strong and our revenue for this March over last March was up slightly."

The uptick in travel could be attributed to a few things, Watkins said. More people are planning "getaway" trips, or closer-to-home trips instead of vacations in far-off locations. A media blitz in surrounding states could also be making Oklahoma an attractive place to visit.

Many travelers planned trips to state parks, lodges and cabins early in the year. The travel season in Oklahoma is strongest from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Watkins said.

Between March and June, the Tourism Department will have spent about $2.2 million on 30-second television ads in Oklahoma City and Tulsa media markets, as well as out-of-state markets. About 80 percent of the television dollars are spent in Texas, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas, Watkins said.

"A lot of people come to Oklahoma to visit family and friends, so we want to make sure Oklahomans know about new places to see and do things," he said.

Many visitors to Oklahoma are coming from Texas, according to a quarterly survey. About 24 percent of the respondents who said they were coming to Oklahoma this year were from Texas. About 23 percent of those coming to Oklahoma were from Missouri and about 15 percent were from Arkansas. Visitors from Florida made up about 17 percent of people who said they were planning a trip to Oklahoma this year.

At Beaver's Bend State Park in far southeastern Oklahoma, the majority of visitors over spring break were from Texas, park manager Jim Miller said.

"Spring break was phenomenal; we were completely full," Miller said.

Miller said expectations for summer travel are just as high as travelers are staying closer to home.

"About 60 to 70 percent of our business is from Texas," Miller said. "I talked to a guy from Fort Worth who brought his family here for a week. It was affordable and very economical for them. We're hearing a lot of that."

While many people were planning trips this year, the economy is the main reason why people stayed home, Watkins said.

Of the people who said they would not travel this year, about 47 percent said the economy was the main reason, according to the quarterly survey.

"It's immediate stimulus when people travel," Watkins said. "That money goes straight back to our economy and does good things in Oklahoma. We think it's an important year and a good opportunity to grow the tourism industry."

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