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Irene Dashes Hopes of Last-Minute Labor Day Getaways

On the fence about a Labor Day getaway? There was some hope falling gas prices were going to inspire Americans to squeeze in one last-minute trip before the summer ended.

But that was before Hurricane Irene.

Ocean City, Maryland.
The Washington Post | Getty Images
Ocean City, Maryland.

Now, popular destinations up and down the East Coast are scrambling to get things cleaned up for the holiday weekend.

While many are mourning the loss of business during one of their busiest times of the year, the good news is most will be open, according to travel website Orbitz.

But will the tourists come?

Even before the hurricane struck there was some concern travel was going to be weak this holiday weekend. But now would-be travelers are even more likely to stay home due to fear they will have trouble arriving at their destinations, that these popular tourist attractions have been damaged, or because they are busy dealing with the storm's aftermath at home.

AAA's annual Labor Day travel forecast projected 2.4 percent fewer people would travel more than 50 miles from their home during the holiday weekend, which extends from Sept. 1 to Sept. 5 this year.

The forecast called for about 87 percent of the holiday travelers, or about 27.3 million people, to drive to their destinations, while 2.5 million, or 8 percent, would fly. Higher airfares and an uncertain economic picture were the two reasons AAA cited for the weak forecast.

At the time the estimate was made last week, Glen MacDonnell, director of AAA Travel Service, said he expected declines in gasoline prices could provide a boost to last-minute holiday weekend travel.

Other surveys, such as one published earlier this month by travel website Travel-Ticker, estimated that more than a third of consumers were still on the fence about their weekend travel plans. But now Irene is expected to prompt more consumers to stay home and barbeque.

First, there are a number of popular East Coast travel destinations that suffered serious storm damage. This included towns stretching from North Carolina up the coast to the Jersey Shore, into the Catskills and on to New England.

On Sunday, many TV networks showed footage of the mangled boardwalk at Spring Lake, N.J., but a portion of the town's beaches have already reopened, according to Jared Kaloostian, whose family owns and operates theOcean House bed and breakfast.

The Ocean House didn't suffer any serious damage, but Kaloostian is fighting hard to reassure guests the town is still worth a visit this weekend. He said power has been restored to the restaurants and shops in the town's center. Although some trees fell within the town and are still being cleared, he is hopeful the stretch of beach closest to his B&B will be reopened by the weekend.

"The town is up and running for the most part," Kaloostian said. Still, he is afraid some visitors don't believe him.

Ocean City, Md., is fighting the same stigma.

About a mile and a half of the synthetic plank two mile boardwalk in Spring Lake New Jersey was destroyed and rendered unusable by Hurricane Irene on August 28, 2011. Hurricane Irene killed at least 15 people and caused an estimated $7-20 billion dollars in damage on its path up the Eastern seaboard.
Getty Images
About a mile and a half of the synthetic plank two mile boardwalk in Spring Lake New Jersey was destroyed and rendered unusable by Hurricane Irene on August 28, 2011. Hurricane Irene killed at least 15 people and caused an estimated $7-20 billion dollars in damage on its path up the Eastern seaboard.

“I think in Ocean City, it turned out not as that bad as was expected,” said Vicki Morris, general manager of the Dunes Manor Hotel, which is located on the city's beachfront. “There were no injuries or major damage, so you just pick yourself up and just move on….It turned out well.”

According to Morris, this year the hotel’s business has been a “little bit better” than last year.

“It would have been a lot better if we had last weekend,” she said.

For seasonal businesses along the shore, summertime revenue is crucial.

Visitors started leaving the Dunes Manor on Thursday due to the storm. People were able to come back beginning Sunday, but occupancy at the hotel on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday was a bit weaker than it might have been without the storm, according to Morris. However, she doesn’t expect visits will be hurt for this weekend.

But if consumers could have been persuaded to travel because gas prices dropped a few cents a gallon in recent weeks, it is reasonable to assume the cost to batten down the hatches for the hurricane will cause some to stay put.

Consumers in the Eastern U.S. had to rush to buy supplies including batteries, generators and bottled water. Some may have suffered property damage. All that means there will be fewer extra dollars laying around to spend on last-minute travel.

Labor Day tends to be one of those holiday weekends where travelers make last-minute plans, according to Ron Pohl, senior vice president for brand management at the Best Western hotel chain. But this year, advance bookings to U.S. properties are up 5.5 percent from last year, and revenue was projected to be up more than 15 percent. Pohl expects Irene could trim the final figures.

"Particularly over the past 72 hours, we have received a lot of cancellations," Pohl said late Monday. He expects to see more activity even into Thursday and Friday.

The hotel chain also had to close six hotels. But that's a small portion of the chain's approximately 2,200 properties.

Outside the East Coast, consumers may still look to find some last-minute deals. Travel-Ticker recommends consumers can find savings by booking trips to big cities where business travel has been down.

Questions? Comments? Email us at consumernation@cnbc.com. Follow Christina Cheddar Berk on Twitter @ccheddarberk.