When Dave Jaskey, a Chicago obstetrician, drove his family from Las Vegas into Los Angeles nine days ago, he noticed the dense smoke that hung heavily over the city and thought: "Geez, the smog is really oppressive here."
Tired from their drive, the Jaskeys paid little heed to the blaring television in the hotel lobby late that afternoon. Then midway through dinner, the restaurant maitre d' apologetically said they'd have to cut the meal short because rioters were rampaging down the street.
Welcome to Los Angeles.
"I came here worrying about earthquakes," said Judy Jaskey during her first visit here in 22 years. "I stopped worrying about earthquakes."
Though many tourists learned of the riot in time to cancel vacations, hapless others--like the Jaskeys--unknowingly arrived to vacation in a city wrenched by violence. Still others showed up, anxious and fearful, during the days after the riot because they were locked in by travel arrangements and had been reassured that the trouble--an industry-preferred euphemism--was contained.
Local residents, tourists said, tended to look at the travelers with great sympathy, as if to say what could be worse--you paid money to be here.
The sight of rifle-toting troops and charred buildings made a lot of foreigners queasy. Tourists who would normally have ventured forth on foot stayed uneasily with bus tour groups. They didn't wander; they ate in the hotel restaurants.
"It's a fear for your safety--you are just not sure if it's OK to come out," said Margaret Rosa, 24, a hotel operator visiting from Kaui, Hawaii. "Should I be walking the streets at this time? Is it OK to go walking around?"
In the days since the riot, tourism has plummeted, with hotels and other related services showing about a 75% loss, said Michael Collins, spokesman for the L.A. Convention and Visitors Bureau, which is under city contract to market L.A. The damage to the industry could cost the city as much as $2 billion during the next 12 months, he said.
"This is not a time that we are going to find travelers saying 'Yes to Los Angeles,' " Collins said. "It's very difficult to find travelers seeking a destination characterized by armed soldiers in the streets. That's a fact of life."
For those who cater to tourists, the days have been slow. Fervy Alexander Salvatierra, 24, sat forlornly in a lawn chair on Sunset Boulevard on Friday, next to a hand-painted sign that said: "STAR MAPS HERE." Before the riot, he could sell about 25 maps on a good day. Now, he's lucky to sell three.
Some tourists, however, dismissed the riot, saying it was actually a boon: After all, tours now are offered at a discount, and lines have been virtually nonexistent at Disneyland and Universal Studios.
Indeed, a few were not fazed in the least by the wreckage they saw.
Asked about the riot, 38-year-old Virgilio Del Rosario shrugged. "In the Philippines, we are used to it."
At Grayline Tours, the more courageous tourists this week asked to view riot-torn Watts--a request that drivers placated by stopping at burned buildings on Hollywood Boulevard.
"We would like to see the riot. Well, maybe not leave the bus but see it," said Alex Laidig, 24, a scale serviceman from Germany, as he waited for a tour bus on Hollywood Boulevard.
Customers such as Laidig caused Joe Barros, a Grayline tour driver for 20 years, to change his customary pattern. These days, he tosses in a few choice remarks about charred buildings. And if people want to get out of the van to have their pictures taken by a gutted shop, he will pull over.
On a tour late in the week, Barros launched into his regular Hollywood spiel. The flowers by Elvis' star are there every day--but they aren't real, they're artificial, he told nine passengers.
He pointed out the wax museum and boasted of its 220 figures. He noted the 1,900 stars embedded in the sidewalk along Hollywood Boulevard, saying it stretches for two miles. Then, as he approached the looted, boarded lingerie shop Frederick's of Hollywood, he said, "They stole Madonna's bustier from there. And they are offering $1,000 for them to return it."
Everyone aboard the bus exclaimed and nodded.
Barros doesn't use the word riot. As he said later, "I get a pit in my stomach just looking at the burnt buildings."
Peter Schneider of Yorkshire, England, rode in the bus directly behind Barros. Unlike Barros, he liked to talk about the riot.
"Call me a brave Englishman who comes to L.A.," said the 42-year-old travel agent, who arrived in L.A. last Monday. "Usually, they treat you so gruffly in America. But people are being extra nice--it's like they have a guilty conscience."
But many foreigners and local tourists seemed unable to brush off the disturbing snapshots they took of L.A.
Cathy and Bob Prentice, of West Haven, Conn., drove into the city by mistake Friday morning. Every day, they would hear about the riots on the car radio as they drove across country; every night, the violence in L.A. dominated the television news.
And so they decided they would omit L.A. from their itinerary. But with the confusing tangle of highways, Bob Prentice, a railroad lineman, took a wrong turn and the couple ended up in the city they were trying to avoid.
Once here, they decided to make the most of the error and do a little sightseeing, albeit nervously.
"We can't wait to get out of here," said Bob Prentice, balancing a camcorder on his shoulder and photographing his wife as she gazed in a jewelry store window on Rodeo Drive. "I don't like the idea of National Guard out there with heavy weapons."
The Prentices had stopped first at Mann's Chinese Theatre. Feeling edgy, Cathy Prentice had her Nikon camera slung across her chest as her husband firmly held his camcorder. They felt safe among the flocks of tourists hovering about the footprints of stars.
Across the street at a fast-food restaurant, a black woman walked up to Cathy Prentice while her husband was in the bathroom. Cathy Prentice's stomach sank. Suddenly, she was very afraid--and she felt very white.
"I just want you to know I am not prejudiced," the black woman told her.
"I told her I wasn't either--that I thought we should all try to get along in the world," Cathy Prentice recalled.
When Bob Prentice reappeared, the couple sought refuge among the tony shops of Beverly Hills.
Pierrot Rajaonarivelo, the ambassador from Madagascar, was supposed to travel with his family to L.A. on the night of the riot. Warned by his staff, he postponed his trip and arrived here from Washington this week.
Rajaonarivelo, walking with his wife and three sons along Hollywood Boulevard, was incredulous that such violence had struck the city.
"All the time, the newspapers are saying something about Africa, its riots, its civil conflicts," he said, pausing to take a picture of his family by Michael Jackson's star. "But this is happening in developed countries. Never could we figure that it would happen here."