Get ready for gas at 4 bucks a gallon

Four dollars for a gallon of gasoline in the Charleston area? Not to worry, said Helen Hill, executive director of the tourist-promoting Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We see a very positive outlook for the summer months,” Hill said. “Advance reservations are good compared to this time last year.” Another positive: South Carolina has the fifth-lowest average price for a gallon of gas in the U.S. But Hill did add a word of caution. If the national media begin to focus on the rising cost of gasoline, “it could hurt us,” she said.

Just ahead of the busy warm-weather tourist travel season, South Carolina motorists are paying $1 more per gallon for regular unleaded gasoline over this time last year.

More unsettling is that the price could crack the $4 a gallon mark by this summer, a potential detriment to vacationers.

The statewide average Tuesday was $3.73 a gallon compared with $2.72 a year ago, according to Charlotte-based AAA Carolinas travel club.

The last time South Carolina residents paid this much for a gallon of gas was two years and seven months ago -- on Oct. 4, 2008, in the wake of Hurricane Ike and just as financial markets began to tumble and deepen the recession.

Despite a brief drop in oil prices on news of Osama bin Laden's death, several factors have caused prices to rise rapidly. The weak U.S. dollar, continued unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, the seasonal increase in demand and the switch to cleaner fuels have pushed oil prices to $113 per barrel, according to AAA.

Gasoline prices maintain a close correlation to the price of a barrel of oil.

"If the situation remains as is, we will see $4 a gallon in South Carolina this summer, although it is uncertain if prices will continue to rise," said David E. Parsons, president and chief executive officer of AAA Carolinas. "The prediction of an active hurricane season is one worry."

Tourists in Charleston already are talking about pulling back because of the steep rise in gasoline prices.

Roger Bryant and his wife, Sharon, of Newport, Tenn., said they will start driving less and begin to consolidate trips.

"America can be great again, but it has to get its energy policy down pat," said Roger Bryant, a retired Quaker Oats supervisor.

Al Mittelmair of Williamsburg, Va., said it costs him $65 in gasoline to drive to Charleston to visit family.

"The price of gas is outrageous," the retired fire chief said. "I will definitely cut back on traveling. It's already affecting prices in grocery stores."

Honeymooners Ben and Jennifer Foster of Asheville, N.C., said they will explore carpooling. He works in sales, she is a school teacher.

"We will certainly be more conscientious of driving less," Ben Foster said.

The tourist-promoting Charleston Area Convention and Visitors Bureau takes another view, saying bookings are up and people will continue to travel.

"We see a very positive outlook for the summer months," CVB Executive Director Helen Hill said. "Advance reservations are good compared to this time last year."

Hill said two things are working in the tourist industry's favor.

"The economy has improved, and a vacation is one of those things people want to do," Hill said. "People want to travel. They will find a way to economize."

She added that if the national media begins to focus on the spiraling cost of gasoline, "it could hurt us."

To counter that, savvy hoteliers will probably offer incentives such as free gas cards to entice people to drive to Charleston, Hill said.

The price of gasoline is starting to become a worry for local government officials.

For instance, the CVB has requested an additional $250,000 from Charleston County's hotel tax fund to further market the Lowcountry to direct-fly cities, such as Chicago, Houston, Nashville and Washington.

But county staff cautioned council members that they are "not entirely confident that accommodations tax revenue trends will continue due to economic fluctuations and higher gasoline prices."

Hill said the data show that collections are tracking well ahead of forecasts because "we had such an amazingly great first quarter. We are the optimist, and they are the pessimists."

A gallon of regular unleaded gas in South Carolina has climbed steadily in 2011, starting the year at $2.92.

South Carolina has the fifth-lowest average price for a gallon of regular unleaded in the nation, according to AAA.

"Motorists can find the lowest prices along interstates at off-brand stations and at most stations in rural areas not near major highways," Parsons said.

The national average is currently at $3.97 per gallon, almost $1 above a year ago, with several states topping the $4 mark. They are Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Rhode Island, Washington state, West Virginia and Wisconsin, and Washington.