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ORANGE COUNTY PERSPECTIVE

Enjoy Ocean--at a Distance?

June 30, 2002

By this time next year, 27 luxury hotels, with rooms costing more than $250 per night, will be under construction along the 100-mile stretch of coast south of Los Angeles. This string of hotels, including a handful in Orange County, is forcing existing upscale properties to pour millions of dollars into renovations. The flurry of high-end construction and the rush to polish high-end amenities at other existing hotels is being driven by the recognition that Southern California hasn't fulfilled its potential as a first-class resort destination.

Given the competition--such five-star destinations as Miami Beach and Waikiki--it's a tough market to crack. But tastefully appointed guest rooms, opulent restaurants and challenging golf courses won't be enough to fill hotel rooms if potential visitors keep reading about mysterious sewage plumes that foul Orange County beaches. Vacationers want an escape from reality, not the skull-and-crossbones message delivered when the county health department says it's not safe to dip your toes in the Pacific Ocean.

In Huntington Beach, where the romantic "Surf City" moniker lingers from the glory days of surfing music, beach closings have haunted recent summers for locals and visitors alike. This is one of the cities in Orange County with luxury hotel rooms under development.

It's bad enough when pollution alerts prevent those of us who are lucky enough to live within an easy drive of our favorite beach from paddling out to play with the porpoises. Imagine the chagrin of the out-of-town couple that has spent $375 for an oceanfront room--not to mention golf course fees, an expensive dinner and a costly visit to the spa--only to turn on the television and see that the beach just a few miles away has been closed for health reasons. Wire photos that show yellow tape stretching across empty beaches tell a different story from the upbeat message that state tourism officials plan to send next year through a new advertising campaign. The marketing message will be that Southern California, with its new wealth of upscale properties, is a "new Riviera."

It is possible of course to spend a getaway weekend at high-end hotels in Dana Point, Laguna Beach and Huntington Beach--all with new projects either built, in the works or with existing hotels planning renovation--without doing much more than walking to the water's edge. For many visitors, the view's the thing, enhanced by an ocean breeze and many amenities right in the hotel.

But it would be nice to think that for such a price you also could go for an ocean swim. All the extensive plans for new luxury hotel rooms coincide with the upcoming expiration of the waiver that the Orange County Sanitation District has had from the Clean Water Act. It hasn't had to treat waste water to the degree other jurisdictions have. Considering the stake for local tourism, no wonder Huntington Beach and other cities have gone on record opposing a renewal. We have opposed it too.

Their high-end convention-goers and weekend visitors will be paying a lot for the expectation that you can go near the water. And as the Fourth of July approaches, it's time to do all we can to reduce ocean pollution, whatever its source, to ensure that future summers will bring pollution-free beaches.

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