PORTLAND – Gas prices shot past the $4-a-gallon mark in parts of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont, just days before Memorial Day weekend that marks the unofficial start of the summer tourism season in New England.

Analysts had predicted the milestone would be reached this summer, but residents were unhappy to see that it happened so early.

In Calais, regular unleaded gasoline hit $4.03 at several gas stations on Wednesday. On Thursday, it went up another 5 cents to $4.08.

“It’s just absolutely brutal,” said Calais Elementary School Principal Peter Perkins, who noted that a trip to see his son in a neighboring town now costs $9.

Others are sharing in Perkins’ pain. The price of regular unleaded exceeded the $4 mark in a number of communities including Rangeley, Maine, Salem, N.H., and Sharon, Vt. Maine’s Vinalhaven island got the award for the most expensive gas, at $4.49 per gallon.

“We have one gas station. Take it or leave it,” said Margaret Olson, who works at Viking Lumber on Vinalhaven. The bigger concern, she said, is high diesel prices that are hurting lobstermen. People can park their cars and walk to save money, but fishermen still have to run their boats.

Nationwide, gasoline reached $3.83 a gallon on Thursday. The average was $3.85 in Maine, $3.76 in New Hampshire and $3.79 in Vermont, according to AAA.

Oil prices rose to $135.09 a barrel overnight for a record before retreating to close down $2.36 at $130.81 a barrel by Thursday afternoon in New York.

Despite a forecast for sunny weather, tourism officials predicted holiday traffic won’t set any records, primarily because of the slowing economy and high fuel prices.

Still, tourism officials expected plenty of people to travel this holiday weekend. More than 650,000 vehicles are projected to be on the Maine Turnpike from Friday to Monday, which would be close to the total for the same period last year.

In New Hampshire, officials expect the state to be jammed with visitors, about 525,000 of them, spending about $76 million.

But the gas prices are expected to take a toll over the summer, especially if they continue upward. Most people will continue to travel, but they’ll make sacrifices to do so, said Matt McKenzie, spokesman for AAA Northern New England.

“When you look at the total cost of a vacation, even though we’re at the dreaded $4-a-gallon mark, it’s still only a part of the overall cost,” McKenzie said. People might compensate by having shorter vacations, staying closer to home or simply spending less, he said.

State parks stand to benefit from the trend. In Vermont, reservations were up 7 percent over a year earlier, said Craig Whipple, director of state parks.

“Our belief is that as fuel prices get higher and the economy takes a bit of a sag, people will rethink their vacation plans and consider things like going to a state park. We may have a higher proportion of Vermonters going camping this summer,” he said.

The New Hampshire Division of Travel and Tourism launched a campaign to remind residents that a tank of gas can carry them to the mountains, lakes and ocean beaches.

To help ease the pain at the pump, the state enlisted the tourism industry to offer gas-saving offers. More than two dozen have responded, offering everything from gas cards to special dining and shopping offers.

As shopkeepers and others prepared for the onslaught of tourists, some motorists were taking out their anger on gas station operators.

“We are catching hell all day,” said Kathy Leighton, cashier at an Irving Mainway in Calais where Thursday’s price was $4.08 per gallon. “People are mad and it’s like they direct it at us. But I don’t make the gas prices.”



AP reporters Dave Gram in Montpelier, Vt., and Clare Trapasso in Concord, N.H., contributed to this report.


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