The number of tourists visiting Orange County last year fell for the first time in six years. And while tourists spent slightly more in 1990 than the year before, their spending failed to keep up with inflation.
The figures released Thursday by the Anaheim Area Visitor & Convention Bureau offer the first hard evidence that the county's important tourism industry has been hurt by the nation's economic slump.
The bureau said that 38.5 million visitors came to the county in 1990, contrasted with 39.4 million in 1989. That translates into a decrease of 2.4%.
Tourism-related spending totaled $4.5 billion last year, compared to $4.4 billion the year before. The increase was about $600 million short of keeping pace with inflation, which ran just under 5% last year.
Industry analysts have said that the local tourism industry is being crippled by the national and local recessions. In addition, tourist-related travel has been cut back because of the fear of terrorism stemming from the Persian Gulf War.
The last time tourism dipped in Orange County was in 1984, when fear of the crowds that the Olympic Games would bring kept tourists away, experts said. Previous downturns were generally attributed to high gasoline prices and a poor economy.
The tourist business accounts for 10% of the county's economic output. That includes estimated tourist spending at the county's shopping malls, restaurants, hotels, car-rental firms, amusement parks and other attractions.
The bureau's report confirms what industry analysts and local economists have been saying for months: Local amusement parks are seeing declines in attendance, and related businesses are feeling the slump.
The major parks do not report attendance figures, but Amusement Business magazine reported earlier that fewer tourists attended most California parks. The trade publication estimated that Disneyland's attendance dropped 3% to 12.9 million and that Knott's Berry Farm was unchanged. Competitors, however, say attendance to Knott's park was also off.
Bill Snyder, president of the Anaheim Area Visitor & Convention Bureau, put an optimistic face on the figures. He said that while business was off, Orange County's tourism industry appears to be doing better than some competitors.
"From all we can gather, that decrease (in visitors) was below the levels of loss suffered by some of our major competitors," he said in a prepared statement.
Nonetheless, there are some clear indications that Orange County's theme parks are hurting. Disneyland recently announced an unusual temporary reduction in ticket prices for Southern California residents, and Knott's Berry Farm rolled back prices for children's admissions.
The county's hotels also report a decline in occupancy due to the recession. For the year, hotel occupancy was down 2.3% in 1990 to 66.1%. Some hoteliers also report a loss of bookings, particularly from Japanese tourists afraid to travel during the Persian Gulf crisis.
With people fearing to travel because of the Persian Gulf War, the outlook for 1991 tourism is uncertain. A prolonged conflict could be accompanied by sharp price hikes or shortages of gasoline, both of which would have a direct impact on tourism.
Snyder said that attendance at the Anaheim Convention Center had surpassed the 1-million mark for the third year in a row and that major conventions are booked for the center until the year 2010. There were 360 meetings and conventions held in the Anaheim area during 1990.
Reflection of Recession In another reflection of the nation's recession, about 900,000 fewer tourists visited Orange County last year than in 1989. Total spending increased slightly from the year before, but would have declined if adjusted for inflation. Visitors (in millions) 1987: 37.7 1988: 38.5 1989: 39.4 1990: 38.5 Spending (In millions of dollars) 1987: $3.8 1988: $4.1 1989: $4.4 1990: $4.5 Source: Anaheim Area Visitor & Convention Bureau