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WAR WITH IRAQ

Many Are Vacationing Close to Home, Boosting State Tourism

Experts say Southland has the best chance of weathering nationwide travel slump.

March 28, 2003|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

Nestled among the rolling vineyards and horse ranches of the Santa Ynez Valley, the Ballard Inn rarely rents more than two or three of its 15 rooms on a Monday night in March. It doesn't even bother to open its well-regarded Cafe Chardonnay restaurant.

But Monday -- five days into the war with Iraq -- the bed-and-breakfast filled nine rooms. In fact, business is up by about a third compared with this time in 2002, said Christine Forsyth, the innkeeper.

"It's last-minute bookings, people driving up from Los Angeles," Forsyth said. "I think a lot of it has to do with not having televisions or telephones in our rooms."

Although airlines are slashing their schedules as travelers shun the airways because of war-related jitters, Southern California resorts, theme parks and attractions say their business is holding up -- and then some.

The key to success in this travel market, they say, is to be within an easy drive of metropolitan Los Angeles.

Walt Disney Co. executives said that although business at their Walt Disney World resort in Florida, a big international destination, was off, attendance had held steady at Disneyland in Anaheim. And it's running ahead of last year's pace at its companion park, Disney's California Adventure.

That's good news for the California parks, which were identified before the war by the state attorney general's office as among the state's top potential terrorism targets.

Disneyland drew about 50,000 people each day last weekend, and California Adventure had a better-than-normal 15,000 to 18,000 visitors, according to people familiar with the parks' operations. The company doesn't release attendance statistics.

Operators of such attractions as Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park and San Diego Wild Animal Park near Escondido said they had seen their attendance hold steady or even gain slightly since war started.

"People want to know they can get home," said La Jolla travel agent Doris White, who spent last weekend scouting the new Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach, a close drive for her San Diego County clients.

California residents account for a bulk of the $76 billion spent on tourism in the state every year. That's why tourism executives believe the industry in Southern California has a better chance of weathering the war than, say, New York or Orlando, Fla., which rely more on visitors who fly in rather than drive.

Still, the Southland hasn't escaped the travel doldrums. Statistics from the first week of the war showed that hotel occupancy plunged about 10% in Los Angeles and Orange counties from the same week last year, according to Smith Travel Research.

San Diego hotels have seen occupancy rate declines near 2% in the war's first week -- a sign it may be ready to lure visitors from other cities within a drive.

So the Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego is redirecting advertising dollars and marketing efforts to the Los Angeles metropolis. The hotel is giving up spots in the Chicago and New York markets to advertise during traffic reports on Southern California's radio stations, said Craig Jacobs, general manager of the historic, 688-room hotel.

The strategy acknowledges the industry's thinking: During times of international tension, people will still take vacations but will favor places they can reach by road.

The challenge, according to tourism executives, is to coax vacation drivers into extending their trips to six to eight hours from the typical two to four.

To entice more Southlanders to drive to Palm Springs, the desert resort town's tourism bureau is reallocating about a quarter of its $600,000 marketing budget to reach people within 300 miles.

The benefits of the "stay close to home" trend became evident in Palm Springs during the run-up to the war, said tourism bureau director Howard Jacobs.

The bureau booked 914 room nights in February, compared with 800 a year earlier, and its two tourism centers hosted 16,478 visitors, nearly a third more than a year ago.

"Almost all of this is coming from Southern California," Jacobs said.

The big resorts in Las Vegas -- about 270 miles from downtown Los Angeles -- also plan to step up their marketing efforts in Southern California and elsewhere in the state, as airline passenger counts drop.

Right now, about 35% of the patrons of MGM Mirage's properties, which include Treasure Island, the Mirage and New York-New York, are Southern California residents. Alan Feldman, the company's spokesman, said MGM Mirage expected the percentage to grow.

"We are going to see a soft period in the coming weeks," Feldman said. "Room rates are moving down, and there will be some good deals."

Times staff writer E. Scott Reckard contributed to this report.

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