RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And high gas prices are worrying the tourist town of Branson, Missouri. Branson is nestled in the rolling hills of the Ozarks. It's more than an hour's drive from the nearest commercial airport, so most tourists come by car or bus. The town's so concerned about tourism revenues it's trying all kinds of ways to entice visitors to fill up their tanks anyway and head on over. Missy Shelton from member station KSMU reports.
MISSY SHELTON: You know you've arrived in Branson when you see bumper-to-bumper traffic lined up along Highway 76. Families with small children packed into SUVs and senior citizens who roll into Branson in tour buses are the bread-and-butter of this economy. Many come to see attractions like the Titanic Museum that boasts actual artifacts from the ill-fated ship. Inside, a stewardess calling herself Janie is decked out in a long black dress, white apron and cap.
JANIE (Titanic Museum): There are only nine life vests in the world. We have three. That's one. We don't know who that belonged to, but these are very, very valuable.
SHELTON: Among the museum visitors today are Rebecca Sibelka(ph) and her husband Brian, who drove here from Oklahoma City.
Ms. REBECCA SIBELKA (Tourist): We actually found a certificate online - on a Branson Web site - and that certificate did give us a gas discount for our trip home. And I think it said it was 35 percent off each gallon of gas.
SHELTON: That's just one of several discounts available to drivers. Because so many Branson visitors come by car, the Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau is offering a gas busters program. In exchange for a $40 or more gas receipt, tourists receive a discount card good at more than 100 businesses. But even with this promotion, some area businesses expect the high gas prices to affect their bottom line. Steve Presley is co-owner of Presley's Country Jubilee - the oldest show on the strip.
Mr. STEVE PRESLEY (Presley's Country Jubilee): We think it will have an impact on our business. We're looking for things to hopefully be level with what they were last year. It's hitting everybody's pocketbooks. And so we think they will be cutting back. Our audience normally comes from all over the United States, and I think we will see them coming from a lot closer because of the gas prices.
SHELTON: There's also a concern about how the gas prices will impact what tourists do once they arrive in Branson. Maybe it means they won't stay as long. Saving money was on Dorothy Snyder's mind as she was looking for bargains in downtown Branson at Dick's Five and Dime.
Tell me what you were doing in here. You were shopping?
Ms. DOROTHY SNYDER: Buying birthday cards, because they're only a dollar. I saw some other things in there, but I didn't buy them.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SHELTON: Dorothy Snyder says the high gas prices didn't keep her from making the trip to Branson, but now that she's here it does change things a bit.
Ms. SNYDER: You look for a place that's a little less expensive to stay in. you look for the bargains while you're here. It affects everything. We're watching our pennies.
SHELTON: Besides offering gas-related discounts, Branson has altered its marketing plan. The town bills itself as being within a day's drive of more than one-third of the country's population. But the driving part is exactly the problem when gas prices are this high.
Lynn Berry, director of public relations for the Convention and Visitors Bureau, says ads for Branson used to run in Chicago and Dallas but not anymore.
Ms. LYNN BERRY (Branson Convention and Visitors Bureaus): We have drawn our marketing efforts in this year. As a matter of fact, we're advertising particularly in the new target markets of Champagne, Illinois; Omaha, Nebraska; Lincoln, Nebraska; Cedar Rapids; Des Moines, Iowa; and Shreveport, Louisiana.
SHELTON: Even with high gas prices, Berry is optimistic there will be some growth in Branson tourism this summer, but at a slower pace than in previous years. She says there's hope for 2009, when a new private airport will begin offering commercial flights. The tourism industry hopes that will be a boon to the local economy, which right now relies so heavily on people filling up their car's gas tank and driving to Branson.
For NPR News, I'm Missy Shelton.
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