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July Tourism Shines in San Diego During an Otherwise Lackluster Year

August 20, 1989|GENE YASUDA | Times Staff Writer

* Through June, 2,636,278 passengers have arrived at Lindbergh Field, up 2.2% from last year's 2,578,830 arrivals.

But San Diego's major attractions, such as the zoo, aren't faring well so far this year.

Although concerned about the 15.5% drop in zoo attendance through Aug.6--more than 80% of the Zoological Society's budget comes from tourists' dollars--zoo spokesman Jeff Jouett says comparisons against last year are deceiving.

The zoo's attendance numbers in 1988 were skewed, Jouett said, because they included the exhibit of giant pandas from China in January and February. "People wanted to see them before they left," Jouett said. "The pandas drew huge crowds."

The zoo also opened its Tiger River exhibit at the end of March, 1988, enabling it to pull in added visitors for most of last year. The zoo only opened this year's new exhibit, the Sun Bear Forest, on July 1.

"Obviously, because of the late opening, we haven't had the same impact," Jouett said.

But, even with the opening of the Sun Bear Forest, the zoo pulled in 436,141 visitors in July--down 7% from last year's attendance but about equal to the 436,344 visitors recorded in July, 1987.

San Diego's tourism rally may still be stalled by the big tourist guns of Southern California: Disneyland and Universal Studios.

"This year the competition is even more intense with Splash Mountain opening up at Disneyland and with Universal's Earthquake," Jouett said. "They're both big draws, and those organizations have spent lots of money to spread the word around to create an urgency to go there."

Such competition, however, isn't the only thing disturbing zoo officials.

Easterners Stay Away

According to the zoo's exit surveys, the number of "Easterners"--visitors east of the Rocky Mountains--visiting the zoo has declined noticeably. Through June of this year, only 424,000 of the zoo's patrons were Easterners. From 1986 to 1988, the zoo averaged 506,000 Easterners.

"That's the most significant area of decline according to our exit surveys," said Jouett about the 20% drop in Easterners' attendance. "But whether that's a market-wide phenomenon or whether it's just peculiar to the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park, we can't reliably say right now."

Jouett said such a decline could mean that San Diego is slipping from a tourism pinnacle.

"Ever since the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984, Southern California has basked in the tourism spotlight," Jouett said. "There are highs and lows in the tourism trade, popularity goes in cycles. We may be coming off a peak, or it just might be a temporary setback," Jouett said.

Jouett, like others in the industry, says it is difficult to definitively say how the season is faring. For example, although zoo attendance is down, the San Diego Wild Animal Park is attracting big crowds.

Through Aug.6, the park has drawn 755,000--up 8% from the same period last year when 697,000 visitors passed through the turnstiles, an increase Jouett attributes to special circumstances.

"We've had a lot of babies--gorilla babies, cheetah babies--and we opened a stork exhibit," Jouett said. "We've been advertising the babies, and we think that's been bringing in more people."

After a slow start earlier this year, Sea World is also witnessing an attendance pickup. Through Aug. 6, 2.4 million visitors entered Sea World--up 9% from last year's 2.2 million attendance figure, said Sea World spokeswoman Corinne Brindley. Summer figures are even more impressive: from June 24 to Aug. 6, Sea World pulled in 1,023,000 visitors--up 16.1% over last year's 881,000.

But Sea World officials acknowledge that this summer's figures are somewhat inflated, in part because of free summer nights passes and discount coupons widely available at gas stations, convenience stores and other retail outlets.

According to Brindley, a summer nights pass--a promotion that began June 24--is given to each paid entrant, allowing the visitor unlimited admission to Sea World after 5 p.m through Sept. 4. As of Aug. 6, 64,000 people have visited the park with the free pass, Brindley said. In addition, Sea World's traditional coupon campaign is offering a variety of discounts--including $4 off the $21 adult admission price.

Trying to Boost Sale Price

Sea World's parent company, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, has good reason to try to boost the gate: it is in the process of selling the San Diego Sea World and five other theme parks, and the sale price could be enhanced by higher attendance.

"I think we were all off to a slow start, but we're having an excellent summer season so far, and attendance has been very strong," Brindley said. "We have a strong line-up, plus Baby Shamu. A lot of people are coming for Baby Shamu."

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