For many local businesses, Memorial Day weekend doesn't just mark the beginning of summer. It's the start of the busy season, when tourists visiting the North Coast bring their dollars into restaurants, hotels, motels and cafes, forming the backbone of our local seasonal economy.

Locals, as well as the Oregon travel industry as a whole, are hoping for a blockbuster summer, despite tough economic times in the state and nationwide.

Both are cautiously optimistic, still watching for early indicators that lots of people - especially Oregonians - will be taking vacations on the North Coast in the next few months. Signs are good, they all said, that this could be a money-making summer. But so far, a few key differences may set this summer apart from its predecessors.

Michelle Godfrey, public relations manager for Travel Oregon and the Oregon Tourism Commission, said the change she's noticed is that people are still taking time off this summer - they're just re-evaluating how far they'll go.

"We have seen a trend nationally - people are planning vacations closer to home," Godfrey said. And so to take advantage of all the Oregonians looking to explore their own backyard, Travel Oregon came up with the Oregon 150 Challenge. It's a special marketing campaign that encourages Oregon-based road trips. It was designed as a campaign to celebrate the sesquicentennial inviting participants to complete five trips within two regions. More than 1,000 entries have already been posted.

"The outlook is optimistic. We know the economy does take a toll. People are looking for package deals - bargain prices. People can find deals," Godfrey said.

Though lodgings operators are reporting that bookings were healthy for the holiday weekend, they're still not sure how vigorous the summer season could be this year. One thing is for certain - vacationers are making plans just days before leaving town, rather than weeks ahead, like they did last summer.

Don West, general manager at the Cannery Pier Hotel, said his hotel is offering more promotional deals for customers, offering guests more benefits and deals than ever before, while taking less money from their wallets. Although the hotel was booked solid for the holiday weekend, it's still too soon to tell what the next few months could hold, he said.

"The summer really depends on so many factors. We just don't know yet," he said.

West does know that now he's seeing folks book their stays inside a two-week window, a noticeable change. He's heartened by the fact that taking a trip to the coast is an easy spontaneous getaway from cities like Portland and Eugene.

Even though hotel bookings are down in Portland, the coast so far has been insulated from the big city's woes, he added.

"Usually whenever Portland sneezes we tend to get a cold a little later," West said of the usual amount of time it takes a Portland trend to hit the North Coast. But so far, numbers still look about the same as last year, even though people are making more hasty vacation plans.

Judith Taylor, 15-year owner of Clementine's Bed and Breakfast, said she's noticing a similar trend. People are booking last-minute, and while it's not slow, it's not that busy either.

"I know the summer will be OK, but it won't be the greatest summer or even the third greatest summer," Taylor said.

Instead of cutting back prices, Taylor said she's adding lots of little extras to make her guests' stays extra special.

"I do cookies, desserts, wine and appetizers. Anything to give me a little edge, it does make a difference," she said.

One thing Taylor said she's not skimping on is marketing.

"Right now it's even more important," she said.

Skip Hauke, executive director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce, said motels he works with are perhaps a bit slower than usual, but are still keeping positive.

"Most of them are saying that folks are waiting to see if they still have a job before booking their trip to the coast," Hauke said. Two weeks out is when folks seem to be calling, he said.

Hauke said other indicators are suggesting a vigorous summer season is approaching. Attendance at the Crab, Seafood & Wine Festival was higher than last year, and the cruise ships have had a big impact on Astoria. Hauke said he's thinking people won't be planning splurge trips requiring long-distance travel this year.

"People aren't going to plan a big week in Disneyland or Florida. That could bode well for places like Astoria," he said.

Teri Wing, park manager at Fort Stevens State Park, said there were few spaces to spare right before the holiday weekend.

"We're pretty much full from July 4 on. So far, camping's up - it's starting to rise." Wing said. As far as where her customers come from, Wing isn't sure. But she does know that good weather in the forecast can be a major factor.

"I don't know if people are staying closer to home. Boy, we're going to have a beautiful weekend - which will work out great for us," she said Thursday.

Mac Burns, executive director of the Clatsop County Historical Society, said for them, this is the most important time of year.

"Memorial Day weekend has always been pretty good for us. May has been good to us," Burns said. Lately, he's noticed too that people are coming shorter distances to enjoy the region's charms.

"We're getting a lot of local and regional folks," Burns said.

West said at the Cannery Pier Hotel, they track where guests are coming from and find that the majority of customers come from the Pacific Northwest.

"The big numbers are from Portland, Seattle and Vancouver, B.C.," West said. Right now, he thinks things are looking good for a profitable summer for everyone.

"In April, we beat our numbers from last year. And last year was a record year. I feel very good about that," West said.

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