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As L.A. tourism rebounds, tour buses bring noise and gridlock

Residents of Beverly Hills and the Hollywood Hills complain that an increase in tour buses — crowded with photo-snapping visitors — is clogging narrow residential streets.

March 05, 2011|By Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times
  • Reflected in a bus mirror, visitors Sharon Butchart of Uxbridge, Canada, left, and Miriam Leiser of Ramsey, N.J., use headphones to listen to their tour guide.
Reflected in a bus mirror, visitors Sharon Butchart of Uxbridge, Canada,… (Liz O. Baylen, Los Angeles…)

In Southern California, where tourism is the top industry, not everyone is happy with the visitors flocking back to Hollywood after a recession-fueled slump.

In the high-priced environs of Beverly Hills and the Hollywood Hills, some residents say an increase in tour buses — crowded with photo-snapping tourists — is clogging narrow residential streets, generating noise and causing gridlock.

"On weekends, it's every 10 minutes," said Tre Gibbs, a voice actor who lives on Beachwood Drive, a popular tour bus route to the iconic Hollywood sign. "In the past six months, it has gotten a lot worse."

It's not a new concern in Southern California, where residents often find themselves coping with tourist noise, traffic, parking problems and overflowing tour buses. But the complaints now come as the tourism industry starts to rebound from the financial downturn that began around 2008.

Tour bus operators say they have tried to lower their profile, to keep noise down and to be more respectful. But they say they also want to serve the growing demand of visitors, whose spending fuels Southern California's $54-billion tourism and hospitality industry.

Over the last year, tour bus companies have met with homeowners and city officials from Los Angeles and Beverly Hills to address the problem. After the meetings, some owners of open-air tour buses replaced loudspeakers used by tour guides with microphones connected directly to headphones worn by the tourists.

Others operators said they have agreed to limit the tours to only daylight hours and to spread out the tours so they don't fill the most popular streets at the same time.

But the owners of several long-established tour companies blame the problem on a surge of new unlicensed companies that blast their speakers and cruise the streets after dark. And residents say the problems persist.

"There has been some improvement but not entirely," said Alan E. Berlin, president of the Trousdale Estates Homeowner Assn. in Beverly Hills.

In Southern California, the number of tours of celebrity homes and other attractions has grown dramatically in the last few years, with at least 134 state-licensed tour companies operating in Los Angeles County, according to the state's Public Utilities Commission. Tour buses, many of which operate along Hollywood Boulevard, carry 12 to 50 tourists, and tour companies charge up to $65 per person.

And the companies are now enjoying a new surge in visitors. In 2010, the number of overnight visitors to the city rose nearly 8% to 25.7 million from 23.8 million in 2009, according to an analysis by CIC Research, based in San Diego. Tourism spending was also up by 10.4% in 2010 to $13.1 billion, although not back to the peak of $14.2 billion in 2007.

But Gibbs and some of his neighbors say the tour buses have been especially loud and disruptive in recent months, causing traffic tie-ups on narrow neighborhood streets.

In July, staff from the city of Beverly Hills and homeowners in the Hollywood Hills met separately with tour bus operators and suggested they replace the buses' loudspeakers with headphones. But some tour operators say the idea hasn't worked because tourists either break or steal the headphones.

"The customers don't like them," said Monique Chu, manager of LA City Tours, who said she spent up to $2,000 to install headphones on one of her open-air buses. "I say if the driver doesn't speak loud, why change things?"

Several tour bus operators say their industry is being tarnished by unlicensed tour companies that ignore rules of decorum and restraint.

"I think it's about common courtesy," said Klaus Ritter, director of sales and marketing for Starline Tours, the largest tour bus operator in the county. About half of the Starline vehicles used for celebrity home tours are open-air buses, all of which offer headphones for tourists, he said.

Raquel Benadda, part owner of Superstar Celebrity Home Tours, said she had headphones installed on one of her buses, but most were broken by tourists. "We are looking for reputable people to install the headphones," she said.

Many of the complaints have come from residents along Beachwood Drive, a popular route that leads to several spots that overlook the Hollywood sign.

Gibbs, who has lived on Beachwood Drive for six years, said he has seen fistfights nearly break out among frustrated motorists when tour buses create gridlock in front of his home.

"In the afternoon and in the morning you hear nothing but people screaming and horns honking," he said.

In a span of 30 minutes, up to eight tour buses stop in front of Jacqueline Jacobs' home on Beachwood Drive, she said.

"Basically, it's a pain in the butt," she said. "I want people to make a buck, but not at my expense."

Jacobs said her home may be a regular stop for tour buses because her husband had a few roles in the 1960s television series "Star Trek" or because she lives in one of the oldest houses in Hollywood.

"If you want to see a celebrity home, buy a postcard," she suggested.

But others take the tour buses in stride.

Buzz Nembirkow, an educator visiting from Massachusetts, said his daughter is visited by tour buses daily because she bought a Beachwood Drive home three years ago that was formerly owned by actor Jack Black.

"That's just the way it is," Nembirkow said, adding that his daughter doesn't complain about the buses. "This is the main road up the canyon to the Hollywood sign. What do you expect?"

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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