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Foreign Visitors Stay Away in Droves

AFTER THE ATTACK

September 20, 2001|LESLIE EARNEST and BONNIE HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Foreign travelers to the United States have largely disappeared since the terrorist attacks and are likely to stay away in droves in the near future, inflicting deeper wounds to the reeling travel and tourism industry.

Few places will feel the pain as much as California, which last year attracted more than a fourth of the country's total overseas visitors, or 6.4 million people who spent more than $7 billion statewide.

Yukio Fujimoto, general manager of the Japan Travel Bureau in Los Angeles, said he had booked about 8,000 individual and group tours from Japan for September. After the Sept. 11 strikes, he said, every tour was canceled.

What's more, he said, more than half of his bookings for October and November already have been scrapped. Many Japanese corporations, including Toyota Motor Corp., have told employees not to travel to the United States unless it's crucial.

"The Japanese mentality right now is to be very scared," Fujimoto said, adding that he doesn't see a full recovery for at least a year.

California tourism officials say there also have been widespread cancellations reported from the United Kingdom and Germany, which after Japan are the second- and third-biggest markets for overseas tourists.

Travel experts say Europeans are more likely to resume travel to the U.S. But few people are expecting international tourism in the U.S. to bounce back as quickly as it did after the Persian Gulf War in 1991.

"The difference is this is a crisis that won't be over quickly," said Ron Erdmann, director of the Commerce Department's Tourism Industries Office. "We're scrambling right now to figure out what should be done to help the industry recover."

"It's a psychological thing," said Rob Powers, a spokesman for the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, which has seen scores of cancellations from business groups. Powers didn't have a breakdown of international meetings called off, but he said about 13% of the city's 36 million visitors annually come from overseas.

Based on discussions with people abroad, Powers said, he thinks it will take longer for the international market to recover. "Honestly, though, I think the real answer is nobody really knows. The events of the last week are so unprecedented."

Desperate to assuage foreign tourists' fears, tourism officials throughout the country are planning to step up their marketing overseas. The Travel Industry Assn. of America said it will boost, among other things, its "See America" campaigns already running from satellite offices in 35 countries.

"We're going to have to do something . . . to get people moving again," said Fred Sater, spokesman for the California Division of Tourism. Sater said the state tourism agency will no doubt spend more money on a travel marketing plan in the coming months.

Meanwhile, tourism businesses already are hurting--some badly.

Employees at the New Otani Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, frequented by Japanese visitors, said only 25% of the hotel's rooms Wednesday night were occupied. And over the next 10 days, they said, occupancy is likely to drop to about half its usual 70% for this time of year.

Richard Park, owner of Paradise Tour Inc. in Koreatown, said he's expecting losses of $100,000 this month from cancellations from Korean visitors. Park said he might file for bankruptcy protection if things don't pick up in a month or two.

"What does international travel do at a time like this? It stops," said Michael Collins, executive vice president of the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau.

International tourists made up more than one-fifth of Los Angeles County's visitors last year, and they accounted for 32% of tourist spending--or about $4.4 billion.

Trips to California from Mexico, the largest market for international tourism in Southern California, have not dropped nearly as dramatically as those from overseas--largely because the border has reopened and air travel is less of a factor.

Nationally, the Japanese are by far the largest group of foreign tourists to the U.S. each year, sporting big wallets and long shopping lists. Last year their numbers went up, despite the country's long recession.

Their favorite destinations are Hawaii and California.

But Northwest Airlines' evening flights to Hawaii were only about 40% full Wednesday, a reservation agent said. All Nippon Airways said its flights to the U.S. were about half full, but they would typically be 60% to 70% occupied in September. Trips to California often include tours of Yosemite or a day at Disneyland. But not this fall.

Yuko Karanjit, 43, had booked an Oct. 10 flight to Southern California with her husband and 5-year-old son, planning to spend two nights in Los Angeles visiting Universal Studios and two nights in Anaheim at Disneyland. But after the terrorist attacks, she's considering rerouting to Singapore or Australia.

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