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High Prices Putting a Cork in L.A.'s New Year Travel Plans

Tourism: Room and tour costs for the changeover, plus Y2K fears, will keep many locals from going far.

July 16, 1999|STEPHEN GREGORY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Despite expectations that travel over this New Year's holiday could hit national and even global highs, many Southern Californians are opting to stay close to home for the dawn of 2000, travel industry observers say, largely because of perceived price gouging by hotels and tour operators looking to cash in on the fervor surrounding the much-ballyhooed changeover.

Fears over possible computer problems arising from the rollover to 2000 could also be tempering New Year's wanderlust, because a number of companies are requiring many of their employees to report in or stay on call to respond to possible glitches and breakdowns over the holiday weekend.

Yet despite Y2K computer concerns, domestic travel this New Year's is still expected to top last year's record of roughly 45.2 million vacationers. A healthy economy, coupled with the sense of history surrounding the holiday, should be enough to push this year's levels to new highs, said Dexter Koehl of the Travel Industry Assn. of America, a Washington-based research and lobby group.

"The foundation is clearly there for a record no matter how you look at it," Koehl said.

But not necessarily for Los Angeles. With less than six months to go before the new year, the region has failed to emerge as a hot spot for out-of-town revelers.

Nor is L.A. shaping up as a point of exodus for local ringers-in. That, however, is not automatically bad news for local hotels, many of which are reporting brisk reservations for New Year's from Southern Californians who have decided to usher in 2000 close to home.

Even with a constant drumbeat of hype over the event, area travel agents report widespread apathy toward venturing forth during the Dec. 31-Jan. 1 holiday.

"I think people are really scared off by the prices," said Janet Szabo with West Hollywood-based Passages Travel, who has had inquiries but few bookings for the period.

Susan Dushane, an agent with Travel by Greta in Northridge, agrees: "For the most part, people are saying, 'Let's just stay home this year.' "

For some, it's not a choice. Bank of America, for example, has scheduled its entire technology and operations division, about one-third of its 170,000 employees worldwide, to stay on call near their homes or assigned workplaces over the period. "We want the year-end to be a nonevent for our customers, and to make it a nonevent requires a lot of work on our part," bank spokeswoman Sharon Tucker said.

Meanwhile, Southern California Edison also plans to have 500 technical and support employees at work Dec. 31 and Jan. 1, utility spokesman Steve Hansen said. Normally, only a skeleton crew of 84 comes in over New Year's. Edison employs nearly 14,000.

But those who can and want to travel over the holiday are, to a large extent, opting for traditional vacation destinations. A survey of nearly 500 members of the American Society of Travel Agents (ASTA) ranked cruises as the No. 1 choice, followed by Las Vegas, the Caribbean, Hawaii, Florida, New York and Europe. The nation's second-largest city, on the other hand, didn't even crack the list of the most frequently booked destinations for the period.

"Los Angeles is not the destination for the millennium traveler that New York would be, obviously," said Greg Velasquez, reservations manager for the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles.

Indeed, two of the three busiest air carriers at Los Angeles International Airport, United Airlines and American Airlines, report that reservations to fly into and out of the region over New Year's are no higher now than they were in recent years at this time. Southwest Airlines, the airport's No. 2 carrier, has not yet started taking reservations for the period.

"For the most part, it's business as usual," United spokesman Joe Hopkins said. Domestic locations shaping up as hot spots for United include Florida, Las Vegas, Hawaii and Phoenix.

Although United did not provide exact figures, spokesman Matt Triaca said bookings for the New Year's period overall "are ahead of last year" at this time.

American Airlines reported that domestic bookings for the period were up 4% over last year, with Florida largely driving the increase. Reservation rates for Los Angeles, however, were pretty much in step with previous years at this time, spokesman John Hotard said.

But if people aren't coming here, they aren't necessarily leaving in droves either.

High prices and refund restrictions on tour packages, air fare and cruises have rubbed many would-be local travelers the wrong way, said Ada Brown, owner of Seaside Travel in Long Beach.

Although she has booked a number of clients on cruises and European getaways over New Year's, Brown said she expected reservation rates to be stronger at this point. High travel costs, she said, appear to be the main culprit dampening demand. With some cruise ship packages going for $60,000 and Las Vegas hotel rooms fetching up to $2,000 a night, Brown said, many clients "really have been turned off by the rates."

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