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Emma Appleby, 11, Ty Baker, 11, and Jackson Parks, 10, check out the stingray exhibit at the Tennessee Aquarium on Thursday, May 25, 2017, in Chattanooga, Tenn. While Emma and Ty said their favorite exhibit was the otters, Jackson said his decision was yet to be determined.

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Heavy travel expected for Memorial Day weekend

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Low — and stable — gas prices, schools letting students out for summer vacation, and growing consumer confidence have led travel experts to predict this Memorial Day weekend will be the busiest in more than a decade.

AAA Travel Service estimates 38 million Americans expect to hit the road this weekend — the most since 2005 — and Chattanooga's billion-dollar tourism industry is gearing up for the peak season.

"We're keeping our fingers crossed that this is going to be a strong summer for us," said Thom Benson, spokesman for the Tennessee Aquarium, the landmark riverfront attraction that helped spark downtown Chattanooga's renaissance and just marked its 25th anniversary.

One draw at the aquarium is its Lemur Forest, which opened in March in the Ocean Journey building and features ring-tailed and red-ruffed lemurs leaping through an exhibit meant to keep the endangered mammals, only found in the wild in Madagascar, stimulated and happy.

"Word has been getting out about that new exhibit," Benson said.

Gatlinburg will have its first Memorial Day weekend since devastating wildfires there in November killed 14 people and destroyed or damaged more than 2,400 vacation cabins and other structures. The Gatlinburg Convention and Visitors Bureau this spring released a new TV ad to reassure potential tourists that, despite the fires, Gatlinburg is still open.

"The area is open back up and was not destroyed," said Tina Rosenbalm, a guest service representative at the Courtyard by Marriott, a hotel that belongs to the Gatlinburg Hospitality Association — and was only one street away from the wildfire.

"You can still see a lot of scorched area," Rosenbalm said. But the fires were good for spring wildflowers, she said.

"The wildflowers come out brighter than ever. It was one of the best [blooms] we've had," Rosenbalm said. "The mountain laurels are blooming really good. The rhododendrons — this is their time to shine."

SoakYa, the water park at Lake Winnepesaukah opens Saturday.

"Memorial Day weekend is a big weekend for us. Schools are out, it's the unofficial start to summer, the water park opens," said Talley Green, public relations director and a member of the family that owns the longtime amusement park, also known as Lake Winnie, on Lakeview Drive in Catoosa County, Ga.

"The park's been open since May 4, and we've had great crowds," Talley said.

That jibes with upbeat predictions for summer travel from national organizations that keep tabs on American's vacation spending.

AAA estimates Americans have saved more than $15 billion on gas so far this year compared to the same period in 2015, and prices are at the lowest levels in 11 years. The strong labor market and rising personal income are also motivating people to travel for Memorial Day this year, AAA says.

More Americans are planning to hit the road this summer compared to 2016, according to the annual Summer Travel Study conducted by GasBuddy, a smartphone app that says it's used by more than 65 million drivers. More than 82 percent said they will take a road trip this summer, the study says, which is a 7 percent increase from last year and a 9 percent increase compared to 2015, with 70 percent of respondents planning to take at least two trips.

A key finding behind the surge in travel, GasBuddy says, is a feat never before seen: the national average gasoline price today is nearly the same (up 1.5 cents) as it was to start the year ($2.34), compared to the average increase of 47 cents. Also, gas now costs nearly the same as Memorial Day last year ($2.33).

"It has been a remarkably quiet spring at the pump, perhaps even record-setting quiet as gasoline prices have seen minimal fluctuation during the normally explosive spring time," said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy, in a news release. "The incredible part is that nationwide, we'll be spending $2.2 billion less over the long weekend versus the highest-priced Memorial Day weekend in 2011 at $3.78 per gallon."

Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at tomarzu@timesfreepress.com or www.facebook.com/MeetsForBusiness or on Twitter @meetforbusiness or 423-757-6651.

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