By Edwin McDowell
N.Y. Times News Service
Spurred by an improving economy, widespread discounts and growing consumer confidence, the travel industry is anticipating America's biggest-ever summer vacation season.
Because the industry defines summer as the three and a half months between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the calendar and the summer solstice notwithstanding, Summer 1995 is expected to get off to a roaring start when about 29.8 million travelers take advantage of the long Memorial Day weekend to visit relatives or friends, amusement parks or art museums, beaches or baccarat tables.
The American Automobile Association and the Air Transport Association have predicted that Memorial Day will mark the beginning of a summer of record crowds on the highways and in the air.
By Labor Day, if the projections prove correct, Americans will have taken a record 230 million summer trips of 100 miles or more away from home, an increase of 2 percent over last summer.
Moreover, industry officials see signs that for the first time in years, summer vacationers plan to loosen the grip on their wallets.
"Americans will take a break from the thrifty '90s and turn the clock back to the luxury '80s, as high-ticket items will be on many travelers' `have to have' lists rather than `wish I had' lists," said William S. Norman, chief executive of the Travel Industry Association of America, a trade group based in Washington.
In keeping with the recent trend toward shorter and more frequent getaways, 58 percent of the travelers surveyed by the association said they were planning more than one vacation this summer.
Among this season's multiple vacationers will be Provvi Panarisi and David Jakubowski, a wife and husband from Queens, New York City, who find that short vacations fit well with their separate work schedules.
"We're flying to Boston next Saturday and staying through Wednesday, while we explore Cambridge and surrounding areas," said Panarisi, a sales assistant in New York for Hyatt Hotels and Resorts. "And in July we'll drive to Cape Cod to spend a few days at an inn in Falmouth, then visit Martha's Vineyard."
Tourism should also get a lift this summer from the expected huge influx of Europeans who, after exchanging their strong currency for cheap dollars, will find that prices at hotels, restaurants and just about everywhere else resemble a gigantic fire sale.
And that is good news for Death Valley National Park, which draws almost a million visitors a year.
"Almost all our summer visitors are Europeans," said Ann Titus, a spokeswoman for the park, in an interview by telephone from the park's headquarters in Furnace Creek, Calif. Summer temperatures at the park average 115 degrees, she said, "but last year's high hit 128 degrees _ that's why we don't get more Americans that time of year."
This year, gasoline is 9 cents a gallon higher than last Memorial Day. But the American Automobile Association said that gas prices adjusted for inflation are 3 cents less now than in 1990, and 26 cents less than in 1985.
"This summer a vacationing family of two adults and two children can expect to spend an average of $221. …