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North County Cities Are Out to Win Tourist Dollars

Times Staff Writer

WANTED: Avid vacationers eager to spend a week and large quantities of cash--in scenic coastal city within a stone’s throw of Sea World, the Wild Animal Park and Disneyland. Swimsuit, camera and penchant for small-town charm recommended. For details, call the Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce. Operators are standing by.

It is unlikely that the prideful and savvy officials who run Carlsbad’s Chamber of Commerce would ever issue such a blatant plea for tourists--and their disposable incomes. They wouldn’t, after all, want to appear too eager.

But potential travelers throughout Southern California and neighboring regions will soon be getting a parallel, if more subtle, message: Carlsbad, with its seven miles of beaches, quaint village-like downtown and wide range of accommodations, is a serious contender in the tourism game, ready and willing to vie with the best of them for designation as a first-class destination resort.

Anchored by the posh La Costa Resort and Spa, Carlsbad’s tourism industry already brings in $1 million annually to the city from the 6% transient occupancy tax (TOT) paid by overnight visitors. That figure placed the city third in the county behind San Diego and Coronado last year in total TOT money collected.

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But Carlsbad has potential to carve a far thicker slice out of California’s tourism pie, Chamber of Commerce officials say. Seven new hotels are under construction in the city, two more are planned and a $50-million expansion and renovation under way at La Costa will vastly increase its capacity.

“Within the next several months, we will have over 2,000 rooms in Carlsbad--about double the number we have right now--and several months thereafter we’ll have even more,” said Doug Yavanian, executive vice president of the Chamber of Commerce.

“Carlsbad must meet the challenge and fill those new rooms. Now is the time for the city to capitalize on this clean and lucrative industry.”

Toward that goal, the chamber has established a Convention and Visitors Bureau with $100,000 in aid from the City Council. Last month, the bureau announced with great fanfare the debut of a promotional campaign designed to market Carlsbad to travelers in the southwest U.S. from selected colder climates.

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An advertising agency hired by the bureau has created a new logo and slogan for the city--"Carlsbad: New Horizons in View"--and recently launched a carefully crafted public relations campaign to give the burgeoning but little-known North County community an identity within the travel industry.

Advertisements are appearing in newspapers and tourist-oriented magazines and work has begun on a six-minute videocassette tape that extols the marvels of Carlsbad and will be used at travel conventions and for economic development purposes.

The pitch, as chamber officials see it, goes something like this: Carlsbad is an ideal “hub city"--within reach of major attractions to the north, south and east, yet quieter and less costly than the San Diego metropolitan area. With its flower fields, three lagoons, shoreline and attractive lineup of specialty shops, Carlsbad is an undiscovered and relatively uncrowded oasis waiting to be explored.

“Every day, 100,000 cars or more shoot right by us down Interstate 5 to San Diego, and never stop to take a look at our great beaches and charming downtown,” said Bob Watson, president of the Chamber of Commerce and a former Carlsbad motel owner. “As a centrally located, beautiful city, we’ve got tremendous potential. We just need to sell it a bit more, so some of those passers-by get off the freeway and come visit.”

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Despite the hoopla and optimism that surround the chamber’s efforts, there are those skeptical of the drive to lure vacationers and shape Carlsbad into what some downtown merchants call a “budding Carmel.”

Councilmen Mark Pettine and Claude (Buddy) Lewis voted against the $100,000 allocation that established the visitors bureau, largely because of fears that promoting tourism may accelerate the city’s already burgeoning growth rate.

“I sense a real concern among my constituents that inviting more people to our city will make the beaches more crowded, increase our traffic problems and generally boost the rapid growth already occurring here,” Pettine said. “I don’t think the answer is clear yet but I think it’s something we should be thinking about.”

Pettine and Lewis also object to the use of city funds--$200,000 for the year--to finance what they say is a venture that will primarily benefit the private sector.

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“When a tourist comes in, that’s good for local business,” Lewis said. “But I don’t own a motel or restaurant and frankly, I thought we were doing all right before, without this active promotion. At the very least, I think the private sector should provide matching funds.”

Watson and other chamber leaders, however, say the city’s allocation is only “a spit in the ocean” compared to the millions already spent annually on promotion by local hotels and other tourist-oriented businesses.

“Our efforts are like the mortar that cements all the bricks together,” Mike Straub, former chamber president and chairman of the visitor bureau’s board of directors, said. “It’s important for us to promote Carlsbad while the La Costas and other properties do their own thing. We should bring the people here, then the individual hotels can get them to their door.”

Further, officials note that for every dollar a tourist spends on lodging, several more dollars are shelled out in retail and grocery stores, gas stations, restaurants and other area businesses, a phenomenon beneficial to the overall economic health of the city.

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As for the growth issue, Watson counters that “the tourism industry is actually the answer to our growth problem. Thousands of visitors come here and spend money that can be used to provide services for our increasing residential population. And they’re short-termers; they don’t stay.”

Carlsbad is not the only North County city with dreams of establishing itself as a tourist mecca. Escondido, with its nine-year-old Visitors and Information Bureau, has been most aggressive on the tourist front, and today uses about half of a $274,000 annual budget for marketing.

Funded with TOT revenue, the bureau initially stressed Escondido’s appeal to the golfer, emphasizing that 28 golf courses lie within a 25-minute drive of the city. Then, however, worried about becoming known as just a golf capital, officials in 1983 inaugurated a new promotional campaign focusing on--you guessed it--Escondido as a hub, or centrally located, city.

“The lure we use is that a visitor can stay here for less and can still easily reach the desert, the backcountry, the beach, the Del Mar Fair and race track, the Wild Animal Park and all of San Diego’s major attractions,” said Suzanne Strasberger, who heads Escondido’s bureau.

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A new motto for the city--"San Diego’s North County: Endless Fun in Every Direction"--was coined recently, and officials say their promotion efforts are beginning to bear fruit. Last winter, for example, the bureau received 3,000 to 4,000 inquiries per month.

Still, Escondido’s annual TOT income is the lowest among North County’s major cities, totaling $230,000 for the 1983-84 fiscal year. Officials predict that a $52-million civic center and performing arts complex, recently approved by Escondido voters, may be the catalyst their industry needs to really take off.

Oceanside, Carlsbad’s neighbor to the north and the second largest city in San Diego County, also actively courts the traveler. Although it lacks a visitors bureau, Oceanside’s Chamber of Commerce spent $58,000--or about one-sixth of the $380,000 collected in tourist tax revenue--on promotion last year, according to Fred Swearingen, the chamber’s executive director.

With the Mission San Luis Rey, an attractive harbor, a fishing pier and some of the best beaches in the county, Oceanside has more tourist assets than most other North County communities. But the city has limited accommodations--five major motels and several smaller inns for a total of about 800 rooms--and its promotion effort has been dogged by a lingering image problem.

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“We have tremendous potential and, in my opinion, a lot more to offer than the rest of North County,” Swearingen said. “But we need a resort hotel on the ocean, as a centerpiece, and we have to defeat this unfair, inaccurate image of us as a high-crime city.”

An ambitious public relations effort to change negative public perceptions of the city is under way. But Swearingen believes Oceanside’s success in the tourism industry hinges on downtown redevelopment, which has yet to make dramatic, visible progress.

As for the rest of North County, Vista and San Marcos seem content to host whatever tourists happen to stumble upon them, Del Mar and Solana Beach feed off the Del Mar Fair and racing season and the San Dieguito area relies on overflow from those events as well as visitors attracted to the area’s beaches and famed flower industry.

Noting the mounting promotional efforts around North County, County Supervisor Paul Eckert has proposed the creation of a tourism council that would develop a “regional tourism strategy and philosophy” for the area. Ultimately, Eckert hopes to see the cities pool resources and market North County collectively, to supplement what the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau does for the region.

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“North County is special and it has to be its own booster,” Eckert said. “With the coming of the convention center in San Diego, ConVis is going to shift its focus further and further away from North County. Eventually, everything north of the San Dieguito River will be ignored and out of luck.”

The logic behind his idea may be sound, but so far Eckert has had trouble mustering support for the promotional consortium. The trouble is, the competition for tourists is so keen that individual communities are reluctant to join hands for the common good.

“We’re all very parochial, no question about it,” said Carlsbad’s Yavanian, who admits he’s been labeled one of the “uncooperative” types by supporters of the supervisor’s plan. “Frankly I think (Eckert’s) idea is premature. Carlsbad is at a very embryonic point in its life and I want to see our program get established before we throw our lot in with other cities.”

One Carlsbad official, who requested anonymity, shared another concern.

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“To be perfectly honest, I don’t think we would want to emphasize the fact that we’re just down the road from Oceanside,” the official said. “I just don’t see the percentage in that and I don’t know if I ever will.”

Competition with its neighbors is not the only cloud hovering on Carlsbad’s “new horizons.” According to San Diego ConVis officials, the city’s biggest obstacle to tourism grandeur is an identity problem.

“Carlsbad will be disadvantaged because there really isn’t any cohesive identity of North County, it just doesn’t hang together,” said Al Reese, ConVis director of public affairs. “It takes years and years to establish an identity, and it also takes really big bucks.”

Reese noted that the limited promotional funds available to North County cities will inevitably limit their advertising impact in the travel trade.

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“Our budget is something over $4 million, and we’re small potatoes compared to Las Vegas, which spends upwards of $30 million,” Reese said. “With only $200,000, (Carlsbad’s) not going to get very far. The most they can hope for is to create a regional identity, reaching up into L.A. and maybe the Central Valley and a bit of Arizona.”

Yavanian agrees that “a lot of people just don’t know where we are.” But people have heard of La Costa, the Tournament of Champions and the U.S. Grand Prix of motorcycle racing--three popular Carlsbad fixtures--and he believes the city can reap benefits from their fame.

“Once we get the word out and tell people where we are--90 miles south of Los Angeles and 30 miles north of San Diego--they will come,” Yavanian said. “I’m sure of it.”


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