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City of . . . Culture? : L.A. Tourism Officials Tackle Identity Crisis


Los Angeles tourism officials unveiled plans Tuesday to promote the region's many cultural attractions, which have been little noticed over the years in the din created by sun, sand and theme parks.

"Los Angeles is a major cultural destination in the world, and yet our message isn't out there," Robert Barrett, director of cultural tourism for the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau, told a news conference at the Discover America International Pow Wow.

The international travel convention, which is not open to the public, has attracted 5,500 travel industry professionals from 70 countries to the Los Angeles Convention Center. The annual convention is expected to generate $3 billion in international travel business for the United States, of which about 10% will head for Southern California. The convention runs through today, ending with a huge, traffic-snarling party in front of the downtown Central Library tonight.

Los Angeles officials are hoping that Pow Wow will not only give a boost to the local economy, but also to the local image, besmirched by a series of man-made and natural disasters.

But with its cultural promotion, the convention bureau is going after an identity crisis that has been festering for decades. This, after all, is the city that Raymond Chandler called a "neon-lighted slum" and Norman Mailer described as "the Queen city of plastic."

And yet, Barrett said, Los Angeles is home to more major museums per capita and theatrical productions per year than any other city in the world.

The largest adobe building in the United States is here (Mission San Fernando), as is the world's largest corporate center shaped in the form of the company product (the Capital Records building in Hollywood). The world's largest rose garden is in Exposition Park, the world's richest museum is the J. Paul Getty in Malibu, and the world's largest collection of handcrafted miniatures can be found at the Carole and Barry Kaye Museum of Miniatures on Wilshire Boulevard.

Los Angeles is part of a coalition that will create special nine- to 15-day tours with such themes as the Latino Heritage Trail, Jewish Heritage Trail and Opera Trail, Barrett said. Also participating are the California Arts Council, the California Division of Tourism and the tourism bureaus of San Francisco and San Diego.

"Our message is, 'You should come to Los Angeles, and bring an extra day for culture,' " Barrett said.

Cultural tourism is becoming a hot topic in the industry, and in July the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau became only the second in the United States to open a cultural tourism department, Barrett said.

While increasing all tourism is the goal, Los Angeles is particularly eyeing lucrative international visitors, who make up 23% of the tourists to Southern California but spend nearly 40% of the money.

International tourism to Los Angeles has grown 73% during the last 10 years, compared with 9% growth in the number of domestic visitors, said George Kirkland, president of the convention and visitors bureau, local host of Pow Wow, which is produced each year by the Travel Industry Assn. of America, a Washington-based trade group that promotes the $430-billion U.S. travel industry.

The United States last year saw an increase in market share in seven of its top 14 travel markets but witnessed a decrease in the other seven, the group reported. Overall, international travel to the United States was down for the first nine months of 1995 because of a sharp decrease in travel from Canada and Mexico. But excluding those countries, travel was up 8.5% from top overseas markets for the period, the most recent national statistics available.

In Los Angeles, the number of international visitors fell 6.5% in 1995, primarily because of a nearly 22% decline in visitors from Mexico. Total 1995 international and domestic visitors to Los Angeles remained virtually unchanged at 22.1 million, but spending increased 2% to $9.7 billion.

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