Mission Bay is lighting a fire under summer

Here in San Diego's Mission Bay -- a nearly 7-square-mile playground of amusement parks, beaches, marinas, restaurants, hotels and souvenir shops -- the words on the lips of merchants and hotel owners are "Fourth of July weekend."

And it's not the annual fireworks displays they are talking about. It's the tourists -- or lack of them so far this summer. All fingers are crossed that the upcoming holiday weekend will kick-start the summer tourism season.

Like most tourist meccas stung by the worldwide recession, San Diego has endured plummeting tourist numbers and meager spending over the last year. But in the heart of San Diego's tourism industry -- Mission Bay -- merchants are betting that good weather, a slew of discounted hotel deals and the nation's 233rd birthday celebration will do the trick.

"July is looking really strong," said Namara Mercer, executive director of the Mission Bay Lessees, a group that represents hotels, marinas, SeaWorld and other leaseholders along the bay. She cited an uptick in hotel bookings for the Independence Day weekend.

Indeed, much is riding on the holiday weekend. Tourism is one of San Diego County's top job creators, employing 110,800 workers and generating $8 billion in revenue each year.

Last year, July was the strongest month for the county, with 4.16 million visitors spending nearly $900 million at such attractions as SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo, the San Diego Wild Animal Park and Legoland. Mission Bay alone draws about 100,000 visitors each summer weekend.

To spread the news about San Diego's beaches, sun and fun, the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau in March launched what it described as its most aggressive marketing campaign, an $8-million promotion with the tag line "Happy Happens." A recent Auto Club of Southern California survey rated San Diego as the top destination for Fourth of July vacationers.

But if San Diego's tourism industry is going to bounce back this summer, the leisure playground of Mission Bay -- home to SeaWorld, the Belmont Park amusement park and the Mission Bay Aquatic Center -- will have to draw big numbers.

Hotel owners and merchants in Mission Bay estimate that revenue has dropped by more than 20% in the first quarter of 2009. They blame part of that decline on the slumping economy, anxiety over job losses and on an alcohol ban on the beach that took effect Jan. 1, 2008. In addition, drug violence and the swine flu outbreak in neighboring Mexico have cut down tourism between Baja California and San Diego.

What's happening in Mission Bay reflects the struggle of middle-class families -- teachers, engineers and plumbers -- to enjoy a few vacation days during one of the worst recessions in a generation.

Ignacio Cisneros, a shuttle van driver at the Ramada Plaza on the outskirts of Mission Bay, has a front-seat view of the struggle. He sees more visitors drive to the vacation spot -- instead of flying -- from places like Arizona. And when the tourists arrive at the hotel, they no longer book pricey tours, he said. Instead, they ask for directions to the grocery stores so they can avoid expensive restaurants.

"The economy is bad," Cisneros said as he sat idling in front of the hotel. "It's affected tourism really bad."

Among those visitors who were cutting back were Matt Gillard, an airline mechanic from Atlanta, and his wife, Susan, a teacher, who brought their two children to Mission Bay to visit SeaWorld, among other attractions. But to save money, they planned to pack peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch.

"We'll do the fun stuff, but we still have to cut back to afford it all," Matt Gillard said as he and his family strolled on the Strand along Mission Beach.

At Hamel's, a Mission Beach souvenir shop, store manager Skyler McManus offers a $5 discount on T-shirts that normally sell for $20. "Things I wouldn't do normally, I will do now," he said as he punched up sales at the store's cash register.

Even with such discounts, he estimates that his sales are down 15% from last year.

Hotels are feeling the pinch, too. San Diego County hotels collected an average of $77.49 in revenue per available room in May, a drop of 26% compared with the same month a year earlier, according to a report by Smith Travel Research Global, which tracks hotel trends.

And the pain has been felt both by economy hotels and high-end resorts. The Motel 6 near Interstate 8 and the Catamaran Resort Hotel and Spa along the water at Mission Bay are both offering discounts of up to 20%.

"The hotels have had a difficult time, like everyplace in the nation," said Steven Pelzer, a spokesman for Evans Hotels, operator of the Catamaran, the Bahai Resort Hotel and the Lodge at Torrey Pines in La Jolla. "We've all had to make adjustments in rates."

Convenience store owners around Mission Bay say the economic downturn was only worsened by a ban on alcohol that was adopted in response to a 2007 Labor Day melee between police and beach goers on Pacific Beach. They say the ban has turned away regular visitors, including the college spring break crowd, sending them to alternative vacation spots such as Lake Havasu on the California-Arizona border.

Basil Zetouna, owner of two convenience stores near Ocean Beach, blames a 40% drop in revenue on the alcohol ban.

"It's the cheapest entertainment to go to the beach, grab a six-pack or watch the sunset with a glass of wine," he said.

But with June's overcast skies almost gone and hotels offering deep rate cuts, many businesses in Mission Bay hope that big crowds will show up this weekend to kick off the rest of the summer.

Said Larry Kaufman, a spokesman for the Paradise Point Resort and Spa in Mission Bay: "July Fourth is a big bellwether for us. We expect a strong demand for the Fourth of July."