Soaring gasoline prices and a tanking economy will prompt many people to stay closer to home this Memorial Day weekend, AAA said yesterday.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia tourism officials are gearing up for a "challenging" travel season and summer.

"It's the first time we've seen people do the math and say, 'Wait a minute, rising gas prices also means my food is costing more, the price of everything is probably going to go up,' " said Meryl Levitz, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corp. "They are going to look for value."

More than a dozen Center City hotels will try to entice visitors with hotel packages that include everything from $50 American Express gift cards to free parking and free admission to the Philadelphia Zoo, Camden Adventure Aquarium, and trolley rides.

"While they might be hesitant at the beginning of the summer, we think there will be a pent-up demand to get away," Levitz said in a briefing on the region's tourism industry at the Philadelphia Marriott.

"Travel will be down Memorial Day. People are not going to jump to be first out of the gate with travel plans unless they've already made them," she said. "People are booking later and later, but they are going to want to get away."

Also yesterday, the AAA automobile club released a survey projecting the number of people traveling more than 50 miles from home over the holiday weekend will be down 1 percent from last year - 31.7 million people plan to travel by car over Memorial Day weekend, down from 32 million last year.

"We are projecting a decline in travel this summer," AAA Mid-Atlantic spokeswoman Cathy Rossi said. "It's the most significant decline in a decade, except after Sept. 11, when travel was flat. People are being cautious about where they go, and what they spend," she said.

"Are gas prices going to stop them from traveling? No. But it will modify their travel," Rossi said.

AAA says the Northeast is expected to see the biggest decline in automobile travel, a 2.9 percent decline, over the Memorial Day holiday weekend last year.

The biggest areas for travel by car over the holiday weekend will be in the West, followed by the Southeast and Midwest, AAA said.

Philadelphia tourism officials hope the trend of travel closer to home will mean local tourist attractions reap the benefits.

Philadelphia is within a five-hour drive from one-quarter of the U.S. population, tourism officials here say, and 80 percent of visitors to Philadelphia come by car.

"Our location really helps because people can drive, even given rising gas prices," Levitz said.

The economy and higher ticket prices also are projected to crimp summer air travel, according to the trade group for the 13 largest U.S. airlines.

The Air Transport Association forecast this week that 211.5 million passengers will fly on U.S. carriers this summer, a 1.3 percent decline from last summer.

Passenger traffic on flights within the United States will be down almost 2 percent, the group said. Travel on international flights is projected to be up slightly.

The airline group said the higher fares carriers were charging had been caused by spiraling jet-fuel prices, which have risen 63 percent since last May.

Altered Memorial Day travel plans are a "precursor" to scaled back summer plans, AAA's Rossi said.

"Travel is important to people - they don't cut back on travel right away," Rossi said. "The consumer is concerned, but not enough to retrench completely."

"People will modify their trips, not cut their trips. They will get creative about their travel plans. They'll go closer to home, stay with family and friends, find ways of budgeting their meals."

Energy Price Snaphot

Oil futures went down yesterday, but gas prices were up. Average prices per gallon for regular-grade gasoline and change from Wednesday.

Oil futures:

$124.12 a barrel, down 10 cents.

Gas prices

U.S.: $3.78, up 2 cents.

Philadelphia*:

$3.78,

up 1 cent.

South Jersey**:

$3.62,

up 1 cent.

*Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery and Philadelphia Counties.

**Burlington, Camden and Gloucester Counties.

SOURCES: AAA Mid-Atlantic, New York Mercantile Exchange.

Contact staff writer Linda Loyd at 215-854-2831 or lloyd@phillynews.com.