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Better Days on the Way for Local Tourism : Travel: With more people booking summer vacations in the Southland, the industry looks forward to an upswing after two years of recession.

March 22, 1992|CHRIS WOODYARD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just as the swallows make their annual flight back to San Juan Capistrano, tourists are beginning to return to sunny California.

Travel agents say summer vacation bookings are up. Theme parks and hotels are bracing for an onslaught of visitors after a slump induced by the Persian Gulf War and nearly two years of recession.

"Right now, we are very optimistic about summer," said Stuart Zanville, spokesman of Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park. "We feel that once the bad weather is behind us, all the indications point to a return of tourism."

The optimism is fueled by other factors as well. Drought-weary skiers have returned to California's snow-laden slopes. And San Diego is benefiting from the preliminary rounds of what it hopes is a publicity windfall from the America's Cup yacht races.

"We're seeing the recession easing, particularly in terms of international tourists and somewhat domestically," said Michele Reese, Universal Studios Hollywood executive vice president of marketing. "Yes, the economy is still poor, but people are gaining more confidence."

Tourism is one of the state's most important industries, generating $52.7 billion in revenue in 1990, the latest figures available, according to the State Office of Tourism. It accounts for 750,000 jobs in the state and more than $2 billion in taxes to state and local governments.

Orange County is among the state's most important centers of tourism. Besides Disneyland, Knott's and other smaller tourist attractions, millions of tourists flock to beaches in summer and the night life in Newport Beach.

Lynn Reaser, senior economist for First Interstate Bancorp in Los Angeles, estimates that tourism spending in California declined 2% in 1991 to $53.8 billion. She expects business to increase 5% this year to $56.4 billion.

"I'm looking for a general improvement in tourism," Reaser said.

The tourism industry was hit hard by the cutback in travel prompted by the Persian Gulf crisis and economic recession. Local theme parks started offering discounts to Southern California residents for the first time last year. Disneyland, the nation's second most popular theme park after Walt Disney World, had an estimated 11.6 million visitors last year, down 10% from 1990's 12.9 million. Hotels suffered high vacancy levels and overbuilding.

However, Reaser said that tourist-dependent businesses should prosper as the general economy improves. Thousands of consumers who delayed travel plans in the past two years because of the poor economy are expected to travel to Southern California this year. And because of the continued economic slump in the state, many Californians are expected to take their next vacations within their state.

When out-of-state visitors arrive, though, they may not stay as long as they did in the past. Whether it is a result of tighter budgets or less time, people are taking shorter vacations.

Reservations are expected to increase about 6% this year for California Parlor Car Tours, a San Francisco-based tour bus company. But instead of weeklong excursions from the Bay Area to Los Angeles--and points between--many customers are opting for two- and three-day outings to Yosemite National Park or the wine country.

"They are taking shorter tours," said Bipin Ramaiya, the company's accountant. "They are scared, with their neighbors out of work."

Booking shorter trips beats having no business at all, say travel agents, who are hopeful for a recovery this year.

"I'd say it's a vast improvement over last year," said Tom Nulty, president of the Associated Travel Management, a Santa Ana-based chain of agencies that coordinates about $150 million worth of travel annually. "When we compare it to 1990, it looks like it will be better due to pent-up demand from the war."

Said Sharon Preston of First Class Travel in Newport Beach about bookings so far this year: "It's not Boom Town USA, but it's on the upswing."

For McDonnell Douglas Travel Co., a subsidiary of the St. Louis-based aircraft manufacturing conglomerate, leisure travel bookings so far this year are up about 30% from 1990 and have jumped 167% compared with the first 10 weeks of 1991, when the country was at war in the Persian Gulf.

"People are traveling significantly more than last year, but they are looking for discounts (and) the discounting has been there," said Andrew Horelick, vice president of leisure marketing for the Huntington Beach-based travel firm.

"I would expect the market in general to look more like 1990 than 1991," he said.

Most of the added bookings are for trips later this year, however. Right now, California's tourism climate is still weak.

"There's not a lot of consistency" in attendance, said Disneyland president Jack Lindquist. The number of visitors coming to Anaheim's famed theme park has been up one week, down the next.

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