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Good news for California tourism: July 4 travel expected to decline

Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

Faced with sticker shock at airports and gas pumps, fewer Americans are expected to travel over this Fourth of July holiday weekend, marking the first such decline this decade.

But the surge in families deciding to stay closer to home, coupled with bargain-hunting foreign visitors, is translating into a surprising boon for Southern California's tourism industry.

Instead of booking a weeklong getaway to Hawaii, people are loading up the car and driving to regional theme parks and attractions that don't involve costly air travel.

"We're not going anywhere far this summer," said Matt Boland, a San Juan Capistrano resident who was standing in line for tickets Tuesday at Universal Studios Hollywood.

With his termite-extermination business hurting from the housing downturn, Boland has put the family on a tight budget this summer. "Just the local beaches and amusement parks for us," he said.

The Bolands are not alone. Reservations by Southern Californians at local hotels are up 9% compared to last year, according to Expedia Travel Trendwatch, and many popular state beach campsites are booked solid for the remainder of the summer.

"What we are seeing is a revision of travel plans, rather than cutting them out," said Bruce Baltin, senior vice president of PKF Consulting Corp., which monitors the hotel industry.

"Eighty-five percent of travel within California is by Californians, anyway," he said. "Southern California as a whole typically benefits when people are cutting back on what we do."

At the same time, an uptick in foreign visitors is helping to keep tourist-related hotels and restaurants busy. Duty-free shops at Los Angeles International Airport are also doing brisk business as foreign tourists take advantage of the weak dollar.

Visiting from England, Angus MacDonald, his wife, Hester, and their two children are on an expeditious two-week tour of the West Coast. The strong value of the euro compared with the dollar has made visiting California a bargain this summer, the MacDonalds say.

In the last week, the MacDonalds have visited the San Diego Zoo, Disneyland, Sea World and Universal Studios. On Wednesday they hit the Grand Canyon and today, Las Vegas.

"It's cheap to come here," said Angus MacDonald. "Everything is reasonable."

Theme park officials said they've focused much of their promotions this summer on local residents and international travelers.

"We do think we're seeing more of the local market, and that's the area we're marketing to," said Jennifer Blazey, spokeswoman for Knott's Berry Farm. "With gas prices and the economy, people are opting to do more 'staycations' and "daycations.' "

"We're very locally focused this summer," said Eliot Sekuler, spokesman for Universal Studios. He said that the studio also expects a "good summer internationally" and that it recently added a Chinese-language tour guide.

Disneyland officials declined to comment, but the region's marquee theme park has managed to grow despite rising fuel prices and a weak economy.

In a recent earnings report, Walt Disney Co. executives said the company's resort business was in better shape now than in past economic downturns.

"While we won't predict how the remainder of the year will unfold, we're pleased with advance bookings at our resorts so far," said Tom Staggs, Disney chief financial officer, in a recent conference call with analysts.

He said room reservations for the company's domestic resorts for the rest of the fiscal year ending in September were slightly ahead of last year. Pricing for reservations on the books for the balance of the year is also "trending higher" than prior in years, he said.

Sue Pisaturo, owner of Small World Vacations Inc., an online site that exclusively sells Disney vacation packages, said she hadn't noticed any significant change in interest in trips to Disneyland, nor has the agency seen a large number of cancellations. The only subtle shift is in hotel accommodations -- more people are staying at less-expensive hotels outside the resort.

"It can mean the difference between going and not going," Pisaturo said.

Nationally, AAA said the number of Americans traveling 50 miles or more from home during the Fourth of July weekend is expected to drop by about 1.3% to 40.5 million from 41 million.

"Clearly gas prices are continuing to take a toll on the traveler's budget," said Robert L. Darbelnet, president of the automobile and travel services association.

Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., said Southern California might have a unique advantage over other major regions of the nation in weathering the downturn in travel.

"You have 21 million people in Southern California, so there is a big market right in your own backyard," Kyser said. At the same time, "there are a lot of things to partake in without going far such as Catalina Island. Our backyard is a pretty exotic and fun place."

Times staff writer Peter Pae contributed to the report.

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