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Tourism on Upswing in Region

Vacation: Beaches and state parks report an extra busy season, and visitors bureaus say foreign travelers and hotel occupancy are up.


Ventura County may not have the tourist stature of Yosemite or the Golden Gate Bridge, but don't count it out if you are putting together a list of the state's popular travel destinations.

Tourism and hotel occupancy showed a healthy increase this summer over last, say workers at local visitors bureaus.

"It looks like our occupancy rate was up 10% in July and August over 1996," said Carol Lavender, director of the Greater Oxnard and Harbor Tourism Bureau. That compares to an increase of 3.2% statewide and a 0.8% decrease nationwide, according to the California Hotel and Motel Assn.

The news was similarly good elsewhere in the county.

"Best August we ever had," said Mike Ellingson, sales director of the Ojai Valley Inn.

In Ventura, "Our calls were up from 735 in June of '96 to 2,516 in June of '97," said Debbie Giles at the city's Visitors and Convention Bureau. "In 1995, our hotel occupancy rate was 75% in August; last year and this August, it's 83%." California's average room occupancy rate is 67.1%

The increase is being attributed, at least in part, to visitors from abroad.

"We're hearing more foreign accents from the tourists who walk in," Giles said. The bureau's August guest log shows that 24 of the 80 or so who signed it were from Europe or South America.

"British and Netherlands travel agents are sending tours to Ventura," Giles said. "A Swiss travel writer came in May. I took her to Anacapa Island.

"She must have written a nice article--I think we've gotten tourism out of it already."

On Wednesday, Eric and Lyn Hall of Coventry, England, were winding up a 16-day escorted tour of California and the West with four days in Ventura.

"We've just arrived," Eric Hall said as the couple paused on Main Street in downtown Ventura. "Lovely place. The shops are more what we expected from a smaller town. They have more character."

Lyn Hall agreed. "It's quite nice, really. We love the beach."

But most of Ventura County's visitors were from closer locales. Oxnard's Lavender said most of her city's tourists come from Los Angeles, or at least Southern California.

"I think they had more money to spend this year, too," she said. "We've had great weather all summer."

According to the guidebook "California Beaches," two of the top three beaches in the county are in Oxnard: Mandalay County Park and McGrath State Beach. The other is Sycamore Cove Beach near Malibu.

The word seems to be out on those. "We were full every day this summer, same as last summer," said state park aide Megan Matthews of the just-ended season at state beach campgrounds such as Emma Wood and McGrath.

Pam Gallo, superintendent of Ventura County's 19 parks, reported similar findings.

"We're always full, too," she said. "When the economy's down, our users are local. When it's up, they're not."

Gallo thinks fewer locals filled overnight spots like the Rincon Parkway this year. "People had more money to travel farther for their vacations this year," she said.

Island Packers, which ferries passengers to Anacapa and Santa Cruz islands year-round from both Ventura and Channel Islands harbors, saw its fares increase by thousands over 1996.

"All our boats are full Friday through Sunday every weekend now, especially with campers for east Santa Cruz," said Cheryl Connally of Island Packers. The tour company expects to sell 47,000 fares by year's end, up from 41,000 last year.

"I'd say we had 10% more foreign tourists--lots of Germans and Japanese," Connally said. "Many people who live here don't realize that people from Germany come for a boat trip to Anacapa or Santa Cruz and say, 'This is the trip of my life.' "

Fifteen miles inland at the Ojai Valley Inn, "We've had Italian and London travel writers come by," said spokeswoman Merrill Williams. "I think Ojai represents an off-the-beaten-path, unusual California destination to Europeans."

The inn plans to open a new luxury spa, with 28 treatment rooms, by year's end. "Europeans are used to spas, but more in the 'taking-the-cure' manner," Williams said. "More medicinal. Ours will be more along the pampering lines."

Even county parks are popular with European tourists, parks superintendent Gallo said.

"They fly to L.A. and rent an RV and head up north. We're on the way up to Yosemite."

Or, in the case of Titan Tours, based in Surrey, England, on the way down. Its $2,000 10-day "California Christmas" tour begins with three nights in San Francisco. The bus then heads south for a night near Hearst Castle and shopping in Santa Barbara followed by two nights in Ventura, winding up with a night in Santa Monica.

On the way to LAX, the tour bus makes one last stop "at Mann's Chinese Theater, where the footprints of the stars are immortalized."

Clearly, Ventura County's attractions don't match the excitement and lure of star footprints. But as a British travel brochure says, it's "an ideal spot for those seeking a relaxing stay . . . before returning home."

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