NEW YORK Record-high fuel prices and a slowing economy will shrink travel in the United States over the coming Memorial Day holiday for the first time since 2002, auto and travel group AAA said Thursday.
Some 37.87 million Americans will travel 50 miles or more from home for the holiday, which falls this year on May 26. That would be down 0.9 percent from 38.23 million last year, according to AAA's survey which was conducted on more than 2,000 Americans.
"This is the first time we've seen a decrease since 2002, after the downturn that followed the September 11 attacks in 2001," said AAA spokesman Michael Pina.
Of those travelers, 31.7 million will go by automobile, down 1 percent from last year's 32 million road travelers, according to the survey. Some 4.35 million people will fly, down 0.5 percent from the 4.37 million people who took to the skies last year.
"Because of the convergence of high fuel costs and economic trouble, there's some softness in people's confidence. But all things considered, this still reflects pretty robust travel," said Mark Brown, executive vice president of AAA.
The national average of U.S. retail gasoline prices has jumped about 21 percent since a year ago to more than $3.77 per gallon. On Wednesday, Alaska became the first state in which the average price for regular gasoline hit $4 a gallon, according to AAA.
The dim outlook for travel over the first holiday of the summer driving season comes amid growing evidence of softening fuel demand in the world's biggest energy consumer as high prices at the pump combine with the effects of an economic slowdown.
Gasoline use has already slipped about 1 percent so far this year compared to last year, according to government and private reports. And the U.S. Energy Information Administration said last month it expects American gasoline usage to shrink during the summer for first time since 1991.
Exxon Mobil Corp chief executive Rex Tillerson said Thursday the price of gasoline in the United States is at or near the level where people begin to curb their usage.
"We're already seeing some demand slackening in gasoline demand in terms of miles driven," Tillerson told NBC's "Today" program. "So I think we're very near, if we're not already at, the price where people clearly are altering their daily behavior."
(Reporting by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by John Picinich)