NEW MEXICO (KRQE) – Summer is the time for most New Mexicans to take a trip. But how will closures from wildfires, increased gas prices, and heatwaves impact summer travel plans in New Mexico?
To find out, KRQE News 13 spoke with tourist destination representatives and travel experts. The overall consensus is that many people will be traveling, but high gas prices will almost certainly impact travel plans.
High gas prices mean a change in plans
New Mexicans have been feeling the sting of high prices at the pump. In June, KRQE News 13 reported that gas prices reached a record high. And since then, prices have remained high. While the state handed out a first round of $250 or $500 dollar cash payments to most New Mexicans in June, many travelers are still rethinking long-distance drives.
Kampgrounds of America (KOA) reports that eight out of 10 campers are adjusting summer camping plans due to gas prices. For the roughly 12 million people expected to camp across the nation in June, about one third are likely to travel shorter distances, a recent KOA report shows. And a third of campers might even take fewer trips. But only 19% of campers canceled their trip altogether, KOA reports.
In New Mexico, gas prices have remained below the national average, data from the American Automobile Association (AAA) shows. This could mean that New Mexicans may not adjust their plans quite as much as other travelers across the country.
The latest prediction from AAA estimates that road trips will still be the top choice for summer travel, even with high gas prices.
“With so much pent-up demand for travel – the AAA travel forecast for this year’s Independence holiday has returned to nearly pre-pandemic levels,” Thomas Kwiatek, the regional manager for AAA New Mexico said in a press release. “The volume of people taking trips has been on the rise since the beginning of this year and doesn’t show any signs of slowing down. New Mexicans are ready to take that much-needed vacation.”
National and state parks are likely to be busy
Summer is peak park time, and New Mexico’s parks are no different. Kampgrounds of America predicts that across the US, state parks and national parks will be top destinations for campers. Kelly Carroll, a park ranger at White Sands National Park, says they’re expecting a guard busy season.
“I expect a busy summer, but a ‘standard’ busy summer,” Carroll told KRQE News 13. “During the summer season here at White Sands, we’ll see anywhere from 40,000 to 60,000 visitors per month.”
“White Sands has picked up in visitation over the last few years. A lot of it is because we were [redesignated] as a national park in 2019,” Carroll says. But, “Even though it’s busy, there’s plenty of room out there in the park to have fun.”
Nathan Hatfield, the supervisory park ranger for interpretation at Chaco Canyon National Historical Park and Aztec Ruins National Monument, says that although parks are a popular destinations, high gas prices might mean fewer visitors this summer.
“If gas prices weren’t so high, I’d expect us to be busier than normal,” Hatfield says. “I really think the price of gas is gonna be a big factor in whether or not people come to these parks this summer.”
KRQE News 13 was unable to reach a ranger at Carlsbad Caverns, but the visitation numbers show they’re likely to have a relatively busy summer. Pre-pandemic, Carlsbad Caverns National Park regularly saw around 80,000 visitors in the month of July, historical data shows. During the summer of 2020, the park saw a record drop-in visitors. But since then, in the first few months of 2022, visits appear to be back to pre-pandemic levels.
In addition to the well-known national parks, New Mexico’s state parks are popular summer destinations. As of late June, 29 state parks are still open for recreation.
“State parks are a great value, and they’re close-to-home in our state,” says Director of State Parks Toby Velasquez. “70% of New Mexicans live within 40 miles of a state park. All large state park lakes are open and people will be seeking their shorelines and water to cool off, catch a fish, or have a relaxing float.”
RVing is on the rise
Bringing the amenities of home along on a camping trip is hard to beat for some travelers, and that’s exactly what RVing offers. And the latest survey data from Cairn Consulting Group reveals that just over half of all campers in North America are interested in RVing in 2022.
According to Kampgrounds of America, interest in RVs is “at an all-time high.” Part of the draw might be “van life” aesthetics or the ability to work from remote locations. But even some ordinary travelers have been switching to RVing.
Chris Cavanagh, at Aloha RVs in Albuquerque, says some of the customers likely see RVing as a cost-effective alternative to staying at expensive hotels.
“It’s a pretty affordable option,” Cavanagh says. “It definitely gives you a lot of freedom to go to a lot of different places on your own schedule.”
Bookings for RV sites at popular spots such as Navajo Lake, east of Bloomfield, and Elephant Butte are already starting to fill up for the Fourth of July, data from NM State Parks shows.
Sunport expecting a busy summer
“All indicators point to us having a busy summer travel season,” says airport Jonathan Small. “We’re seeing that New Mexicans, as well as visitors to our state, are eager to travel.”
As the state’s main travel hub, the Albuquerque Sunport generally sees hundreds of thousands of travelers each month during the summer. The COVID-19 pandemic meant fewer passengers over the last few years, but with more people feeling ready to travel, the airport is likely to be relatively busy. And some airlines are facing internal issues that could make traveling more challenging this year.
“We do know that airlines still face staffing challenges and pilot shortages, so it’s difficult to predict changes that might impact travelers in the future,” Small says. “We are encouraging to be patient as the industry continues to work through these challenges and check with their airlines for adjustments to schedules.”
Recently, the Sunport has lost some routes as Allegiant Air ended local service. But Small says there haven’t been significant adjustments that are likely to affect most travelers.
Still, if you plan on flying, Sunport recommends two hours ahead of your flight. And keep an eye on flight schedules in case there are delays.
Looking ahead: Fourth of July travel
All indicators point to a busy Fourth of July weekend. AAA New Mexico predicts this year will be one of the busiest in the last two decades.
“Independence Day will be the second busiest since 2000, as travel volumes continue to trend upward with no sign of slowing down,” AAA notes in their forecast. “It is important [that] travelers are prepared and flexible to minimize stress and enjoy the holiday.”
If you plan on traveling for the Fourth of July, you should schedule in a little extra travel time. And if you’re making reservations for a hotel, campsite, or flight, get it done early before bookings are filled up.