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Group Pushing County Culture, History to Lure Tourists

September 13, 1998|MASSIE RITSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Few tourists would schedule several days to visit, say, the Reagan library in Simi Valley. But throw in the San Buenaventura Mission, Ojai artists' studios and the Salsa Festival in Oxnard, and you just might have a full vacation.

At least that is the logic of the Ventura County Cultural Tourism Confederation, which was formed to promote tourism countywide.

And it's not looking to promote just any sort of tourism. The confederation figures the county's history and culture might be the key to attracting more visitors and in the process improving the area's quality of life.

Amusement parks and sports teams are one way to draw tourists' dollars, but the confederation cites studies showing that cultural tourists--those who travel to museums and festivals, for example--spend more money per visit and stay longer.

The difference in this latest effort lies in its regional approach. Individual cities and areas in the county have marketed themselves, alone, sometimes in competition with each other. But the confederation sees greater success coming from cooperation, Chairman Ed Robings said.

"With cultural tourism, we on our committee have decided that the way to get a person to stay one more day in a hotel or visit us in the first place is . . . to tell them about the whole county," said Robings, director of the Ventura County Museum of History and Art.

"There's not enough to do possibly in any one city to keep anybody more than a day or two, but if you interest them in exploring the whole county, they might stay longer."

Across Ventura County, cultural tourism projects are springing up, such as Ventura's Chamber Music Festival and downtown redevelopment, Santa Paula's public mural project and Broadway shows at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza.

A forum to discuss how the county can capitalize on cultural tourism will be held Wednesday at 4 p.m. at the old Camarillo State Hospital site, the future home of a Cal State campus.

Two consultants will speak and a presentation will be made on a confederation survey to be distributed to visitors at county attractions and hotels.

"The results of this survey will provide insights into just who is visiting Ventura County," said Ronda LaRue, whose company is designing the survey. "The survey will provide a seasonal profile of who visits, where they come from, what they do while here, their spending and so on."

Relating Tourism to Local Economy

LaRue, who is working on a similar survey for Santa Barbara County, said Ventura County residents should not worry that the push for more tourists will overwhelm their communities.

"This survey is not about creating some big influx of tourism into our communities," she said. "It is about understanding the context and contribution of tourism to our economy and how to attract and serve a desired level of targeted visitors to our region and to the many unique cultural venues and businesses in our area."

Robings agreed.

"If people are afraid of being overwhelmed by tourists and, as some people put it, being 'loved to death,' we're not anywhere close to that," he said.

In two of the county's more popular destinations--Ventura and Oxnard--hotel occupancy rates hover around 60%, according to the cities' visitors bureaus.

"We could almost double our number of tourists without building another hotel or another restaurant," Robings said.

Ventura County's coastal cities have long cited their beaches as their major attractions, but Robings doesn't think sand and sun are enough for a healthy tourism industry.

"People arrive here and the first thing they do is walk on the beach," he said, "but after they've walked on the beach for about an hour, they come in and they say to the hotel clerk, 'Well, we walked on the beach. What else is there to do now?' And it's answering that question that I'm interested in."

Other areas with popular beaches, such as Santa Barbara, have successfully broadened their allure by creating cultural districts and events that appeal to tourists.

In fact, it is Santa Barbara that is often cited as siphoning off visitors who should be fair game for Ventura County. But, Robings said, being between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara should be an asset, not a liability.

"One of the things that I think is our strength is the fact that we aren't as expensive as L.A. or Santa Barbara, typically. We have a beautiful place. We have a marvelous beach."

Wednesday's forum is sponsored by the Economic Development Collaborative of Ventura County, which in 1995 identified tourism as being among the county's fastest-growing industries.

The group's goal was to bring leaders in the field together, Director Bob Cooper said. It was those leaders who identified cultural tourism as a specific segment to explore. A 1997 study found that tourism accounts for 8,940 jobs in Ventura County, contributes about $800 million to the area's economy and about $12 million in local taxes.

Developing Ways to Lure Visitors

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