BIG BEAR LAKE — Mike Meyer and Ronnie Russell prefer to vacation far from their Newport Beach home, but a recent excursion found them plying the placid blue waters of Big Bear Lake aboard a faux pirate ship.
The couple own a condo in this mountain community, and this is where they now spend a lot of their down time.
"We usually go to Mexico or exotic places like that," Ronnie Russell said from her perch on the ship's deck. "But with the economy and everything, we aren't doing that as much."
Their lake voyage meant two $19 fares for the company that owns the replica of the 16th century Spanish galleon. But in general the "second-home" crowd doesn't spend as much money as true out-of-towners do, local merchants say, and that's putting a dent in their business.
"We see a lot of homeowners use their own cabins," said Tina McCrudden, director of property management at Big Bear Cool Cabins, which rents out homes in the area. "They do their own repairs and they don't eat out."
They apparently don't buy souvenirs as much, either.
"This spring has been a lot slower than previous years," said Michael Romero, who owns a wholesale souvenir and T-shirt business that supplies about 50 shops in the Big Bear Lake area.
He estimates that sales have dropped between 30% and 40% in the last few months. He's not panicking yet.
"Business has been down, but I'm hoping for a good summer," he said.
Unlike many other Southland resort destinations, Big Bear has long relied on a mix of both vacation-home owners who make regular visits and others who come up much less frequently and rent their lodgings.
Because of the economic downturn, however, fewer people are willing or able to rent cabins. As a result, a cabin that rented last year for $750 a week goes for about $450 now, said McCrudden.
What's more, she said, some cabin owners who used to rent out their places are no longer doing so because they don't make as much -- opting instead to stay in the cabins themselves.
How much that trend has hurt local merchants is anyone's guess, but there's no denying that sales are down. For the last three months of 2008, sales tax receipts were down 7.4% from the year-earlier period, according to the most recent city records available.
All of this comes on top of a slow ski season, during which visits to two local resorts -- Bear Mountain and Snow Summit -- dropped about 8% compared with last year's season, despite a winter with some of the best snowfall in a decade.
Tim Breunig, co-owner of United Wood Craftsmen, a furniture gallery and art store at Big Bear Lake, said business dropped about 30% in April compared with a year earlier. A souvenir shop that was next door to Breunig's gallery moved to a smaller storefront to save money. But that shop continued to struggle and now is closing.
Business "will pick up," Breunig said. "But will it pick up to levels of last year? I don't know."
Still, the news isn't all bad. Big Bear is a bargain compared with some resort destinations -- try renting a home near the beach for $450 a week -- and some believe that could give the town an edge this summer.
"If I'm not going to Europe or anywhere else this year but I'm staying close to home, Big Bear is a great area to go and vacation," said John Husing, an Inland Empire economist.
Russell and Eliza Dobbins of Las Vegas did just that. They said they usually vacation in Missouri to visit family. But this year, they spent a weekend in Big Bear Lake because they found reasonable cabin rental rates, inexpensive meals and friendly locals.
"Cost definitely had to do with us being here," said Russell Dobbins, a software engineer.
Big Bear Valley, nearly 7,000 feet above sea level in the San Bernardino Mountains, was once home to Serrano Indians, Spanish missionaries, hunters and prospectors.
The forested valley didn't develop into a resort hub until engineers built a dam on the valley's marshy flatlands in 1884 to hold water for a planned community that was named Redlands.
The valley is now home to the city of Big Bear Lake, with a population of about 6,000, and the unincorporated communities of Big Bear City, Fawnskin and Sugarloaf.
The blue-green waters, towering pine trees and cool temperatures have made Big Bear Lake a favorite outdoor playground and a prime Hollywood filming location. The shady woods and rocky shores provided the backdrop for such classic movies as "Old Yeller," "Gunsmoke" and "Gone With the Wind."
So far, at least, property values in the region have held up relatively well. Residential home values in Big Bear Lake have fallen 30% from the peak in 2006, according to San Diego-based MDA DataQuick, a real estate information service. In comparison, home values in Southern California as a whole dropped 51% from their peak in 2007.
Loren Hafen, owner of Holloway's Marina at Big Bear Lake and of the marina's touring pirate ship, says business is on par with last year.
At Hafen's 380-slip marina, all but about 30 slips have already been rented to boat owners. He expects nearly all to be rented by July 4, the traditional start of vacation season on the lake.
The pirate ship sails the lake at least once each weekday and more often on weekends, and rentals of RV spaces at the marina are up nearly 5% over last year, Hafen said.
"All indicators now are good," he said.