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Tensions are high as Hollywood tour bus operators vie for customers

The confrontation between competing tour bus operators on Hollywood Boulevard escalated quickly.

Jeff Napshin, owner of Star Track Tours, was distributing fliers on a busy corner a few months ago when an angry rival approached, ridiculing Napshin. Cellphone video shows Patrick Hickey, owner of Rockin' Hollywood Tours, getting more and more irate.

"Get that phone out of my face," Hickey shouted as he pushed the phone away, sending it crashing to the ground. On the video, Napshin can be heard complaining, "He just hit me. You witnessed it."

The tour bus business on Hollywood Boulevard has become ultra competitive — at times downright hostile. Operators are looking to score big profits from a recent surge in visitors to Los Angeles.

Shoving matches, arguments and harassment are common among tour bus owners and drivers vying for coveted stretches of sidewalk, according to police and tourism officials. State and local oversight is sparse.

"It happens right outside of our doors sometimes," said Leron Gubler, president of the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, whose offices open to Hollywood Boulevard and the much-visited Hollywood Walk of Fame. "This is something that does need to be addressed."

Lawmakers in Sacramento are considering legislation to strengthen oversight by the California Public Utilities Commission, which issues permits for tour buses. Los Angeles city officials are also trying to tame the atmosphere with a plan to keep buses off of a busy stretch of Hollywood Boulevard throughout the summer.

The rivalries among tour bus companies have become more heated as tourist numbers have climbed.

Los Angeles set a tourism record last year, with 44.2 million visitors, a 4.8% increase over the 2013 tally, according to the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board.

Visitors to the county spent $19.6 billion in 2014, a 6.8% increase over the previous year, according to the board. International visitors — coveted because they generally stay longer and spend more per visit — accounted for nearly 33% of all visitor spending, the board said.

Tours that cruise by celebrity homes or famous movie locations charge about $35 to $60 a person, depending on the length of the excursion. Tour vans can carry about nine passengers, and double-deck buses can hold up to 80 tourists.

PUC officials don't keep statistics on how many of L.A. County's 1,275 passenger carrier companies are tour bus businesses. But Gubler estimates that 20 to 30 tour bus companies operate along Hollywood Boulevard, up from seven or eight about five years ago. Tour operators and tourism officials say some tour businesses on the boulevard don't have permits or insurance.

Although the PUC is responsible for regulating tour buses, limos and other vehicles that carry passengers, a 2013 report by the state auditor concluded that the agency "does not adequately ensure that passenger carriers comply with state law." The report went on to say that the agency had no formal policy to address complaints against passenger carriers and lacked leadership and methods to measure performance.

The California Highway Patrol is designated to check the bus companies for permits and insurance, but CHP officials say they respond only when complaints are lodged.

"It's not something that we do routinely," said Sgt. Kenton Miller of the CHP's Motor Carrier Safety Unit. "I can't remember the last time we did it."

State Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) introduced legislation this year to increase the authority of the PUC to regulate passenger bus businesses. Among other changes, the bill would give law enforcement agencies, including the CHP and LAPD, the power to impound tour buses for up to 30 days if they do not have permits.

City Councilman Mitch O'Farrell, who represents the Hollywood area, has tried to rein in the tour bus skirmishes. In 2013, he pushed for an ordinance that bans tour bus operators from selling tickets and exchanging money with clients on the sidewalk of the boulevard.

A fine can run as high as $1,000 per violation. But city officials were unable to say how many citations have been issued or whether anyone has been fined.

O'Farrell also has initiated a summer pilot program prohibiting tour buses from parking along a busy two-block stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, from North Sycamore Avenue to Highland Avenue. The program requires that operators load and unload tourists in parking lots a block away.

"I am keenly aware of the various issues with the tour bus operators in Hollywood," the councilman said. "We are taking concrete measures to raise the standard of behavior."

Most established tour bus companies have laid claim to stretches of Hollywood Boulevard where they solicit tourists. Conflicts arise when a tour bus business tries to solicit in a competitor's claimed area.

"It can get quite aggressive out there," said Philip Ferentinos, director of Starline Tours, the city's largest tour bus operator. "Some people feel certain parts of the boulevard are theirs."

Since 2008, LAPD arrest reports show, at least seven tour bus employees have been arrested on suspicion of assault, battery and making criminal threats on Hollywood Boulevard. But area detectives say most of the confrontations don't escalate beyond arguments and pushing.

"It is territorial out there," LAPD Det. Kevin Becker said. "There are maybe a few shoving matches."

Shortly after Napshin opened his tour business, he filed a lawsuit claiming that three competitors harassed and assaulted him.

"It was literally months of hell and months of getting verbally and physically attacked," he said.

A few months after the complaint was filed, Napshin and the defendants, including Hickey, settled the suit, agreeing to stay clear of each other's territory on the boulevard.

Hickey's attorney, William Moore, agrees that the tour bus business has become heated in recent years.

"There is a lot of money to be made by selling the tours and there are a lot of people trying to get into it," he said.

But Moore denies that Hickey hit Napshin. He said Hickey simply pushed the camera phone out of his face. "Nobody hit anybody," he said.

Other tour bus operators have described getting a hostile welcome to Hollywood Boulevard.

Mike Chase, the operator of Prime Time Hollywood Tours on Hollywood Boulevard, said several competitors tried to intimidate him when he launched his business in 2012 by parking in front of his kiosk and telling him to move his operation elsewhere.

He said he had to ask several friends to hang around his kiosk to keep his rivals at bay.

"They act like they are mobsters or the mafia," Chase said. "It's like the wild, wild west."

hugo.martin@latimes.com

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