Tourists Steer Clear of California

Earthquakes, riots, recession, causing tourism to plummet in the Golden State

BUSINESS is slow in the boutiques and tourist shops along Main Street here where yellow police tape cordons off several stores, and many Victorian-style homes have slipped off their foundations.

For one of California's most popular summer tourist destinations, boarded-up doorfronts and ominous inspection notices ("structural hazard has been found") are testimony to the April earthquake that has kept local bed-and-breakfast inns at only half capacity.

With the exception of San Francisco, where one recent night found every hotel bed in town occupied, California tourism is in a nose dive.

In Los Angeles County, home to half the nation's top-10 theme parks, experts are predicting that the $7 billion-per-year industry will lose $1.1 billion during the next 12 months.

"There is no doubt we are having and will continue to have about as bad a year as can be imagined," says Gary Sherwin, spokesman for the Los Angeles Convention and Vistors Bureau. Six years of drought, followed by major flooding in February preceded the nation's worst civil disturbances in April. Two weeks ago, back-to-back earthquakes projected still more images of destruction to a country still reeling from recession.

"We are trying to give prospective visitors a geography lesson," says Mr. Sherwin. "We want to let them know that if they come to southern California's theme parks, Hollywood, or the beaches, there is almost no chance of seeing devastation either from the riots or the quakes."

At smaller attractions, from Hearst Castle, home to newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, to the Danish tourist town of Solvang near Santa Barbara, agencies and tourist authorities say business is off significantly, based on traffic between the state's two largest cities, San Francisco and Los Angeles, both of which have had quakes since 1989.

Ironically, San Francisco is now picking up some of the California-bound tourism that fell off after the Loma Prieta quake toppled a section of a freeway and set Marina district homes ablaze.

"We think people are coming here to avoid Los Angeles," says Judy Rowcliffe, spokeswoman for the San Francisco Ritz Carlton. Hotel occupancy there will average about 85 percent for the summer, according to John Marks of the San Francisco Visitors and Convention Bureau. The reasons: national airline prices which are still low despite recently announced increases; the recent doubling in capacity of the George Moscone Convention Center; recession-generated price competitions among hotels.

From Eureka to San Diego, tour operators are trying to both minimize the damage from recent civic and geologic disturbances and put the best spin on low attendance figures.

"Visitors should know that lower attendance means better treatment by operators who need business, fewer hassles and shorter lines," says Sherwin.

Visitors can expect all kinds of package deals, entry-fee reductions and new attractions as well. Universal Studios, for instance, is trying to rebound with the introduction of "Backdraft," which recreates special effects from a warehouse fire in the 1991 movie. The amusement park Six Flags, Magic Mountain has introduced a new concept rollercoaster called "Flashback."

Meanwhile, a different set of problems affects the state's parks. At Richardson's Grove State Park near Redway, tourist Rob Poole lambastes ranger Dara Peters for a $14-per-night camping fee. "This is outrageous," says the man who paid $1 per night just a few years ago. "These prices are keeping people out of the park."

A blue-ribbon panel of business leaders, environmentalists, and legislators recently released a dire report on the state's 285 parks. Faced with continued, massive budget cuts, the park system is contemplating closing 20 to 30 parks, laying off personnel, and cutting back maintenance.

"The finest park system of its kind in the world is falling apart, quickly losing its constituency [and] failing to meet increasing user demand," said the committee in a communique to state parks chief Donald Murphy.

The blue-ribbon committee on state parks is also proposing a rescue plan. It asks the state legislature to approve new taxes and urges more commercialism and private involvement in the state's 1.3 million acres of state park - nearly 18,000 campsites and 3,000 miles of trails.

"It's true that staff morale is down," says Richardson Grove's Peters. She notes that campers complain not only about higher user fees, but that such fees get them fewer services, from campfire lectures to trail cleanup. At Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the Santa Cruz Mountains, an antiquated sewage-treatment plant is unable to run at full capacity. At South Carlsbad State Beach, the campgrounds are forced to close several times a year because of sewer-system breakdowns.

Parks Director Murphy has asked the committee to propose long-term ideas for financing the state park system. Some which have sparked controversy call for giving the private sector investment opportunities, the expansion of concessions, and the allowance of more private and public advertising within the parks.

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