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Students' Slayings Another Harsh Blow to L.A.'s Image : Tourism: After riots, fires and the quake, more visitors from Japan and other countries are expected to shy away.

March 30, 1994|JEFFREY L. RABIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After years of economic woes, unrest and other calamities, January's powerful earthquake rocked the Los Angeles region's vital tourism industry just as it was poised for recovery.

Some hotels suffered damage. Phone inquiries from prospective visitors dropped, and tourists canceled room reservations.

By a twist of fate, the quake's impact was not immediately felt. Hotel rooms were filled with disaster workers and residents displaced by the Northridge temblor, raising occupancy rates in January and February above those for the same period last year.

But a predicted decline in hotel bookings took hold this month, and a strong aftershock rekindled visitor concerns about earthquakes.

"We don't need any more bad news," tourism consultant Bruce Baltin said. "We need good news for the tourism industry to recover economically."

Instead of getting a boost, the region's second-biggest industry was dealt yet another damaging blow within days. Two college students from Japan were slain Friday during a carjacking, setting off an international furor.

"There is no question . . . this is going to hurt," Baltin said this week. "There's no way to tell how much and how long."

Japanese tourists are the largest single bloc of overseas visitors to Los Angeles.

Almost one out of six foreign tourists comes from Japan. And with a powerful yen, the Japanese spend six times more than the average tourist from the United States, pumping at least $480 million a year into the local economy.

The 500,000 Japanese visitors who come each year are "an enormously valuable market," said Michael Collins, senior vice president of the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Collins said intense media coverage surrounding the tragic shooting of students Takuma Ito and Go Matsuura, both 19, outside a San Pedro supermarket Friday night could keep many Japanese tourists away. "Could they drop 10%?" he said. "Yes."

In the past few years, Japanese television viewers, like those elsewhere, have seen pictures of the 1992 riots, the 1993 fires and the 1994 earthquake, said Ken Kohno, Los Angeles bureau chief for NHK Japan Broadcasting.

Still, the deaths of Ito and Matsuura struck deeply in Japan, where earthquakes are an ever-present danger but random violence is relatively rare and guns are strictly controlled. "All of this makes L.A. (seem) very dangerous and not a good place to go," Kohno said.

But, Collins said, the crime should be viewed as "a ghastly exception" to the experience of typical Los Angeles visitors who are drawn to the city's many attractions, from Hollywood to Venice.

On the brick-lined streets of Little Tokyo, the deaths of the students have reinforced the concerns of some Japanese tourists about visiting Los Angeles.

Idehara Kazue, a college student from Osaka, said through a translator that she had seen "so many beautiful places" on her visit here, but that the shootings had heightened her concerns for her safety.

"They always say it is dangerous to walk alone on the street in Los Angeles, so that makes me worried," Kazue said as she and two friends stood outside an upscale gift shop.

Virtually all of the customers who buy expensive leather handbags, designer clothes and towels, perfume, T-shirts and American gear are Japanese tourists, said gift shop salesman Rajesh Raja.

"This is our bread and butter," Raja said. "If this kind of incident takes place, more and more we will be affected, no doubt about it. The Japanese are very delicate people. . . . They are guests. If they don't feel safe, they will not come here."

Officials had hoped that tourism dollars, by creating jobs and generating hotel and sales taxes, would help fuel the region's recovery from prolonged recession.

After three tough years, the industry had been anticipating a better year. The newly expanded Downtown convention center was opening and the city seemed on the verge of a recovery in visitor traffic.

"Before the quake, we had strong evidence this was going to be a good year," Collins said.

After images of death and destruction were broadcast worldwide, forecasts of a gradual improvement in visitor spending were replaced by more conservative projections.

Shortly after the quake, Baltin, the tourism consultant, predicted that the temblor would cost Los Angeles County's $8.2-billion visitor industry $308 million this year--a 3% drop from earlier forecasts.

"The impact isn't huge," he said, "but it's definitely there and will be felt probably through the summer."

Baltin told the Convention and Visitors Bureau that he expects "the impact to be felt, beginning slightly in March, building through June and then tapering off through the summer and fall."

Although local visitor attractions and virtually all major hotels were back in business soon after the quake, impressions linger about the effects on the region. And the 5.3-magnitude aftershock March 20 put quake-rattled Los Angeles on the national news again.

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