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TODAY contributor
updated 5/7/2008 5:12:20 PM ET 2008-05-07T21:12:20

On the surface, it's shaping up to be a very tough summer for travelers — oil north of $120 a barrel, airlines shrinking capacity, fares rising almost by the day.

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But what about travel close to home — and in particular, two segments of travel that you might presume to be in serious trouble: recreational boating and recreational vehicles?

With marine fuel nearing $5 a gallon and regular gas heading in that direction, you might be surprised to learn that when it comes to getting out on the water, or getting out on the road, Americans will not be denied.

If you already own a boat or an RV, chances are good that you're planning to put your boat in the water and you've made plans for road trips in your RV.

That would seem counterintuitive, but the numbers speak otherwise. While retail sales for recreational boating topped $39 billion in 2006 — an increase of nearly six percent from 2005 — the last two years have not been as buoyant. In 2007, the industry saw a drop of 14 percent in unit sales, and nine percent in dollar sales. And this year will be worse. In fact, at the recent Miami boat show, many new boat dealers were downright depressed. "See that brand-new boat over there?" said the president of one upscale boat manufacturer. "I've sold it four times this week." Translation: The prospective buyers couldn't close financing.

However, on the lower end of the market, deals are closing. In fact, there will still be 300,000 new boats sold this year. Of that number, 200,000 will be outboard models with a price tag of under $40,000. "It's been a real surprise," says Thomas Dammrich, president of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, "but we've seen no connection between the soaring fuel prices and boat sales, especially in the small- and large-boat market." It's the middle that's soft.

But what does this mean? It means the people who have boats, big or small, will be using them this summer. "Boating is one of those untouchables," says Steve Fleming, director of communications at Mercury Marine. "It's a reverent situation where people will complain, and then they'll go to the fuel dock and fill up. I can stop driving to Chicago for dinner from Milwaukee, and I might not go to Hawaii this year, but I'm taking my boat out fishing." And five minutes after we did this interview, Fleming headed to the Fox River to go bass and walleye fishing.

"People will be using their boats this summer," says the NMMA's Dammrich. "But they may be using their boats in a different way. They'll probably spend just as much time on the water, but much of the time this summer it may be while they're tied to a dock."

With the cost of filling a 200-gallon gas tank nearing $1,000, floating becomes almost more attractive than motoring. But what about boating equipment, accessories and apparel? "That's where we're seeing real surprising strength," says Daniel Owens, strategic sales and marketing manager for Overtons, the 31-year-old North Carolina-based boating supply company. "People are opting to refit and upgrade their current boats and not buy new ones." As a result, in 2007, Overtons' sales were nearly 10 percent ahead of 2006. And this year, Owens reports sales levels are keeping pace with the 2007 level — no small accomplishment considering the economy.

Thus, it's not surprising that getting slip space in many marinas is still a challenge — another reflection of the surprising resilience of the boating industry.

And on the road? Another surprise. While sales of new RV units are down, those who own existing RVs, like their boating counterparts, plan to use them this summer regardless of the price at the pump. A recent survey of current RV owners conducted by the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association revealed that 93 percent of RV owners intend to use their RVs at least as much this spring and summer as in 2007. In fact, of the 16 summer weekends this year, nearly 50 percent of all RV'ers will spend half of these weekends traveling in their RVs. And of the 93 days of summer, 63 percent will spend at least 21 days in their vehicles. But the real indication of the RV trend — even in the face of soaring fuel prices — is that RV rental bookings are up an impressive 20 percent between Memorial Day-Labor Day compared to 2007.

The reasons for this have a lot to do with the weakness of the U.S. dollar and higher airline fares and hotel rates. RV'ers get to travel closer to home, they don't have to buy airline tickets, check in or out of hotel rooms or eat out every night. Everything being relative, a family of four can affordably rent an RV and travel much less expensively than flying and staying in hotels.  Another revealing statistic: These campgrounds — like boating marinas — are filling up.

So what’s the breaking point? The psychographics of boating and RV-ing seem to indicate that boaters and RV'ers would sooner give up new clothes and dining out before they abandon their gas-guzzling toys. And like the boaters, RV owners may be spending as much time in their RVs — perhaps even more time — than last year, but that doesn’t presume they’ll be driving that far or, in some cases, driving at all.

And of course, when an RV is parked, it consumes no fuel. As one RV'er joked, "It gets great gas mileage for a house."

So, in a few weeks, if you're out on the highway and you see an RV towing a powerboat, chances are the folks driving the RV are saving money on airfare and lodging, only driving a few hundred miles from home and planning to float around on the boat when they get there.

Peter Greenberg is TODAY’s Travel editor. His column appears weekly on TODAYshow.com. Visit his Web site at PeterGreenberg.com. 


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