Tourism officials predict a steady start to another strong summer travel season, buoyed by high consumer confidence and stable gas prices.

More than 1.6 million New Englanders are expected to hit the road this Memorial Day weekend, 2.7 percent more than last year, according to the American Automobile Association. A big chunk of those road trippers are coming to Maine, with about 960,000 vehicles expected to travel Interstate 95 from Friday to Monday, the Maine Turnpike Authority said. That would be a 3.1 percent increase in travel over last year’s Memorial Day weekend.

The number of New Englanders expected to travel at least 50 miles from home using any form of transportation, including air, boat and train, signals the busiest Memorial Day travel weekend forecast since 2005, said Pat Moody, director of public affairs for AAA Northern New England. Nationally, at least 39 million Americans will travel.

“Higher confidence has led to more consumer spending,” Moody said. “Many Americans are choosing to allocate the extra money on travel this Memorial Day.”

The travel industry itself is predicting a strong summer.

Memorial Day holiday traffic builds on the Maine Turnpike in Portland on Friday. The Maine Turnpike Authority expects about 960,000 vehicles on the highway this weekend. Staff photo by John Ewing

“The start of the year has been strong and we are hopeful of this continuing through the peak season,” said Steve Hewins, the president and CEO of Maine Inkeepers and Restaurant Association. “Advance bookings from those properties I have spoken with look good. The national economy appears to be improving, and even the long-term weather outlook is favorable.”

Campground reservations are filling up quickly and the big holiday weeks are already mostly booked, said Steve Lyons, the acting director of the state’s tourism office. The season already has begun in Bar Harbor, which is predicting a season to rival last year’s, which saw a 17 percent visitor spike as a result of Acadia National Park’s centennial celebrations, Lyons said.

Since 2012, the number of visitors to Maine has increased by about 6 percent annually, Lyons noted. In 2016, Maine hosted almost 36 million visitors. An estimated 5 million of those came to Maine for the first time. Of those newcomers, many came from the mid-Atlantic states, a region that the state’s tourism marketing program began to target in 2014. Maine will increase its marketing dollars in that region in 2017, Lyons said.

“The numbers demonstrate that the Maine brand resonates with today’s travelers, who want to escape the everyday, and are inspired by that sense of place, and perspective, that is distinctly Maine,” he said. “The pervasive natural beauty of Maine and the connection with the natural environment in our daily lives is not something you can easily find elsewhere.”

Jonhard Joensen, from Denmark, touches up paint on the stage area at the Old Orchard Beach Pier in preparation for opening day Friday. Joensen has been doing maintenance on the pier since February and will soon take a summer job as a deckhand on the Monhegan Island ferry. Staff photo by Jill Brady

But will Maine be ready? Low unemployment and changes to the federal visa program that provided many Maine inns and restaurants with foreign temporary workers are causing serious staffing shortages for some of the state’s hospitality businesses, Hewins said. Employers got some relief from an extension of a program that allows returning foreign workers not to be counted toward the cap on these seasonal workers. But the state’s low unemployment rate of 3 percent is an enduring challenge.

PUMP PRICES PLAY A ROLE

While the natural beauty may draw travelers to Maine, some industry players said stable gas prices will be what gets them on the road in the first place.

More than 82 percent of the drivers who use GasBuddy, a smartphone app that tracks local gas prices, plan to take a road trip this summer, according to the company’s annual summer travel study. That’s 7 percent more than in 2016.

Of those surveyed, about 70 percent plan to hit the road more than once. GasBuddy attributes the surge to stable gas prices, with Memorial Day gas likely to cost $2.39 a gallon, just 5 cents more than on Jan. 1.

“It has been a remarkably quiet spring at the pump,” said Patrick DeHaan, a senior petroleum analyst at GasBuddy. “As a result, we are finding that more people than ever will be taking advantage by hitting the road.”

Although stable, the national average price of gas is still about 5 cents higher than it was on Memorial Day 2016, AAA said. Airfare, hotel and vehicle rental rates also are higher, according to AAA. Average airfare for the top 40 domestic flight routes is 9 percent higher, with a typical round-trip ticket costing about $181. A three-diamond hotel room will cost $215, or 18 percent more. Daily rental cars will run $66, or 7 percent more.

But that’s not stopping Americans from travel, even on a holiday like this weekend, when crowds can sometimes bring a hassle.

About two out of five Americans surveyed by Digital Research Group, a Portland-based polling company, expect to kick off summer with a Memorial Day trip. The most popular reason for traveling is to spend time with friends or family, which was cited as the goal of 69 percent of those surveyed. Sight-seeing came in second, at 40 percent. Overall, almost half of Americans, or 46 percent, expect to fire up their grills.

“The ‘official’ unofficial start to the summer season is clearly a time to kick back,” said DRG president Bob Domine. “Americans are ready for a break.”

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

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