Big Jump in San Diego Tourism Is Attributed to Variety of Reasons : Jump in Tourism Has Economy Smiling--for a Wealth of Reasons

San Diego County Business Editor

Pundits may debate the root causes, but nearly all would agree that 1987 is shaping up as a boom year for the San Diego tourism industry.

All major tourism industry indicators are showing healthy, if not record-breaking, gains. Airport passenger arrivals at Lindbergh Field, for example, are up 17% so far this year compared to last and San Diego County hotel room night sales are up more than 8%. Total visitors to San Diego were up 4.8% through June and visitor spending was up 9.1% over the comparable period last year, say San Diego Convention and Visitors (ConVis) Bureau officials.

Sea World, San Diego's largest tourist magnet, which in recently spent $25 million on a 19-acre expansion, has reaped a huge first-year payoff. Attendance has jumped 20% for the first seven months of the year at the Mission Bay aquatic park.

Zoo Up Slightly

Visitor traffic at the San Diego Zoo was up only 1% through July but officials say they are satisfied in light of the big attendance records set in 1986, the zoo's 70th anniversary year. Moreover, the zoo expects a significant jump in attendance the rest of this year, thanks to tourists' interest in the visiting giant pandas from the People's Republic of China.

Among the beneficiaries of the tourism boom are service companies, such as car rental agencies. And Richard Phillips, night manager of the Avis office at Lindbergh Field, reports that his bureau rented about 10,000 cars in July, a 25% increase over rentals in July, 1986.

Also benefiting are hotels. A Laventhol & Horwath survey of 127 of the San Diego area's larger hotels showed occupancy at 76.2% for the first six months of this year, compared with 73.6% for the same period a year ago, despite a 10% growth in the inventory of rooms available.

Explanations for the boom in tourism range from the general to highly specific. Greater San Diego Chamber of Commerce economic research chief Max Schetter, for example, takes a decidedly macro approach in attributing the increase to the improved well-being of the local, state and national economy.

"There is optimism about the future of the economy so people feel they can afford to take a trip," Schetter said. "San Diego is still a magnet to travelers from all around the country but particularly the West."

Cites Depressed Dollar

Schetter also pointed to the "depressed dollar" that makes vacations abroad more expensive, giving U.S. vacationers an incentive to stay at home.

Several observers said San Diego may also be benefiting from the increased national exposure given the city through Dennis Conner's winning the American's Cup yacht race and from the upcoming Super Bowl scheduled for San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium in January.

Others say the local tourism has benefited from effective marketing. ConVis President Dal Watkins said his agency has increased its advertising budget 12% for the current fiscal year, which follows another 12% budget bump last year. Much of that increase has been spent on television advertising in cooperation with local theme parks.

While Sea World did not appreciably increase its marketing budget, the aquatic park owned by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich increased its television advertising in the Los Angeles area, where about 20% of Sea World's visitors come from on a given day.

"It's paid off terrifically," said Ron Yeakley, Sea World's vice president of marketing, of the increased TV spots. Sea World's 20% rise in attendance this year is even more significant when compared with to the 3% increase seen in amusement parks nationwide, Yeakley said.

Attendance records at Sea World have been set during each of the past four months, Yeakley said, and the 36,000 visitors to the park on July 4 set a single-day record.

Watkins said perhaps the most meaningful of tourism industry statistics in terms of economic benefit is air passenger arrivals, which totaled 2,957,103 for the first seven months of 1987, up 17% from the same period last year.

$25-Million Expansion

"Air passengers bring in a higher yield because they typically are the people who are most likely to stay in hotels, rent cars and go to attractions," Watkins said.

Sea World's $25-million expansion and the zoo's panda exhibit illustrate the importance that attractions attach to offering something new to entice repeat visitors, Yeakley said. Repeat visitors are important to Sea World where, on a typical day, 70% of those in attendance are from Southern California, he said.

The Wild Animal Park has seen attendance drop 6% to 734,000 over the first seven months of the year, a decrease "directly attributable" to the park's decision to discontinue its summer concert series, spokesman Tom Hanscom said Monday. No new extra attractions are planned at the park, he said.

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