SAN DIEGO — Turnstiles whirled in July at most local tourist attractions--the best month so far in an otherwise lackluster year for the local visitor industry.
Tourism industry experts are hoping the spurt in attendance will continue throughout the summer to brighten what has otherwise been a disappointing year--at least when contrasted with the last few years, which were glorious for local hotels, theme parks and other destinations.
Although both total number of visitors and tourist spending in San Diego increased since last year, traditional hot spots such as the San Diego Zoo, Sea World and Cabrillo National Monument showed diminished drawing power in the early part of 1989.
Through June, San Diego attracted 16.4 million visitors who spent $1.4 billion. Those numbers represent a 2.6% increase in visitor attendance and a 1.7% rise in spending over the same period last year, according to the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau.
But the zoo drew only 2 million visitors through Aug. 6--a 15.5% drop from the same period last year. At Cabrillo National Monument, 1989 attendance figures through July were down 11% from 1988, with only 917,638 paying visitors.
And, although attendance at Sea World has held steady with last year's, the theme park's gate has been inflated somewhat by free admission passes and widespread discounts.
Competition From Disneyland
Industry analysts say they are perplexed by the season's sluggish start but agree that a combination of factors, rather than a single cause, has stunted tourism growth. Those factors include stiff competition from other major Southern California amusement parks such as Disneyland and Universal Studios, both of which opened new attractions this year.
Other factors, tourism officials said, were higher gasoline prices and the late opening of new exhibits at local attractions. For example, this year, the San Diego Zoo opened its Sun Bear Forest exhibit July 1, much later in the year than the zoo's unveiling of Tiger River in March, 1988.
But industry followers say it's inaccurate to label this season as a disappointment and argue that contrasting 1989 with recent years is unfair.
"The best way to describe the tourism season so far is to say that we've been holding our own," said Al Reese, a Convention & Visitors Bureau spokesman. "Now, if we don't show improvement over the previous year every time, some people say that's bad news.
"But that's not necessarily true, because we have already achieved a high level of tourism success. So holding at that plateau doesn't mean something's wrong."
Both 1987 and 1988 were banner years for tourism. In 1987, the San Diego Zoo drew 3.8 million visitors, Sea World lured 3.7 million patrons and Cabrillo National Monument welcomed 1.8 million, all record attendance figures. Last year, the "Big Three" drew crowds that were almost as high.
With local attractions recently unveiling their new summer shows, tourism boosters are now hoping that the attractions can match the record-setting pace of the last two years.
Although overall countywide hotel occupancy through the first half of 1989 was down 3.3% from last year, rates at San Diego's most popular sectors--La Jolla, Pacific/Mission Beach and Old Town--increased in June. According to Pannell Kerr Forster consultant Bill Seymour, the gains are especially significant because they occurred during a hotel building boom.
Hotel occupancy was up 14% in Old Town over 1988, 9% in La Jolla and 11% in Mission Bay/Pacific Beach. And countywide, hotel occupancy in June increased over last year, from 68.4% to 69.4%, or 1.4%.
"It shows that demand is keeping pace or is even ahead of the increasing building supply," Seymour said. And he projected that hotel occupancy for 1989 should hit 70%, comparable to last year's 70.4%.
4.6 Million Room Nights
According to a Laventhol & Horwath report, June was the best month of the year so far for hotel/motel room nights sold--799,808, up 6.7% from last June. More than 4.6 million hotel/motel room nights were sold in the county through the first six months of the year, up 1.6% from 1988.
Hotel building has been big business in San Diego recently, as hoteliers await the overnight visitors expected to flock to the San Diego Convention Center when it opens in November.
"A lot of hoteliers are eagerly awaiting the opening of the convention center so they can fill the empty rooms they currently have," said Max Schetter, director of the Economic Research Bureau for the Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce.
Other tourist indicators provided by the Convention & Visitors Bureau confirm industry analysts' mixed review of the first half of 1989:
* 812,109 visitors used Mission Bay Park, down 8.7% from last year's 889,616.
* 2,918,794 visitors went to Old Town State Park, up 11.2% from last year's 2,625,797.
* 1,158,692 patrons visited major museums, down 4.2% from last year's 1,208,905.