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State's Travel Expectations Hit a Roadblock

A surge earlier this year had raised hopes for big summer tourism. The economy and terrorism fears may be to blame.

August 08, 2004|Debora Vrana | Times Staff Writer

With Labor Day only a month away, they're using words like "soft" to describe business at the Fess Parker Doubletree Resort in Santa Barbara.

In Anaheim, tourism officials say this summer will probably be no better than last year. And at an upscale lodge in Yosemite National Park, the proprietors are waiting for the phones to ring.

It's not what the state's $78-billion travel industry figured would happen this season.

Based on a sharp increase in tourism during the first half of the year, officials were predicting the best summer in the Golden State since the 2001 recession and Sept. 11 terrorist attacks put the brakes on leisure travel.

But "the summer season is not as strong as people expected it to be," said Bruce Baltin, a hotel analyst with PKF Consulting in Los Angeles.

Explanations vary. Some experts speculate that the uncertain state of the economy and the fact that gasoline prices are stuck in the $2-a-gallon range may be keeping travelers at home. Security concerns, sharpened by the recent terror warnings on the East Coast, have no doubt also come into play.

And travel patterns may be changing, Baltin suggested, with Californians deciding to take one major trip during the summer, such as a cruise or European vacation, rather than a lot of little weekend expeditions.

That's the route Carolyn and Tom Darin of Northridge took. In June, they spent nearly $5,000 on a 7-day Alaskan cruise with their 4-month-old daughter, Lindsay. "We decided to just do one big trip this year while we could still afford it," said Carolyn Darin, 29.

Val Hardcastle, general manager of Tenaya Lodge in Yosemite, was expecting a strong summer when April numbers showed visitation to the national park up 24% from last year. Then, in June, park visits rose less than 1%, said park spokesman Scott Gediman, despite expectations that the spring gains would continue through the summer.

"We were all expecting this to be a huge year," said Gediman, who said visitors from Asia and Europe helped boost Yosemite's spring numbers. "But this summer is not materializing."

At Tenaya Lodge, a 266-room resortthat chalks up 75% of its business from California residents, many guests are staying one or two nights, Hardcastle said, rather than the three- to four-night stays common before 9/11. To change that equation, the lodge is offering a $169-a-night special rate for the end of August and first week of September, rather than the usual $200-plus nightly rate.

"It's just a matter of getting the phones to ring," Hardcastle said.

The story is much the same at the Fess Parker Doubletree in Santa Barbara, where bookings are as much as 4 percentage points below general manager Tim Birdwell's early forecasts.

"We were all overly optimistic" about the prospects for summer tourism, he said.

There are upbeat signs. Some tourist draws, such as Legoland California, Santa Monica and Pismo Beach, are reporting strong traffic. And state tourism boosters continue to hope for the best.

"We're fairly confident that the summer is looking pretty good," said Jennifer Jasper, deputy director of the California Travel and Tourism Commission in Sacramento, which won't have summer tourist numbers until about November.

In fact, Beverly Hills-based Hilton Hotels Corp. said bookings in California were up 12% in July compared with last year. Hilton also partly owns the Fess Parker Doubletree.

And the Automobile Club of Southern California said hotel bookings made through the club were up 24% in June from the year before, while cruise bookings jumped 31%.

But the Auto Club reports that these and other travel categories softened last month.

At one Southern California theme park, visitation skyrocketed in April -- and has disappointed since then, said one park official who asked not to be named.

"We thought we were going to be in fat city," the official said, especially because the visitation increase was before at least one new major ride was slated to open. "But in June it started to taper off. It's not bad. It's just not meeting expectations."

In Anaheim, Elaine Cali, spokeswoman for the convention and visitors bureau, said people were making decisions to book trips on a shorter lead time and that it was "hard to forecast" how the summer would end up."Hopefully it will end up being a strong year," Cali said.

At Montrose Travel in Montrose, one of the 50 top-selling travel agencies in the U.S. according to the company, bookings are up just slightly this summer from last year, despite double-digit increases earlier in the year.

"It's better than last year," general manager Rhonda Holquin said. "But it's not blockbuster."

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