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They Still Love L.A. : Despite Quake, Crime and Tarnished Image, Tourists Returning to Southland

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite the Northridge earthquake, growing concerns over crime, and a generally tarnished image, Southern California last year improved its standing as a tourist destination for the second year in a row. And further gains are forecast for 1995.

More than 22.2 million tourists visited Los Angeles County last year, up 4.4% from 21.3 million in 1993, according to the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau. That figure is the highest since 1991, but still lower than the past decade’s high of 25.2 million, set in 1989.

Because the majority of tourists to visit Southern California arrive via Los Angeles County, the L.A. area is considered the best barometer of tourist activity in the region.

"(The area) showed an undeniable resilience last year,” said Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles. “The numbers show that underneath it all, there is still an exciting lure to Los Angeles.”

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And those who came spent considerably more. Overnight visitors generated more revenue than at any time in the past 10 years--$9.25 billion, up a striking 11% from $8.31 billion in 1993.

By contrast, the number of tourists venturing to Orange County, which experiences proportionately more day trips than overnight stays compared to L.A. County, dipped 1% last year to the lowest total since 1987. Spending rose just 2% to $4.9 billion, less than the rate of inflation, according to the Anaheim/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Although Southland tourism was bumped up in 1994 by numerous one-time events, 1995 looks to be equally upbeat, analysts said. While the number of conventioneers may dip slightly, the region is expected to draw more vacation-seekers, especially from abroad.

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In retrospect, last January’s earthquake left Southern California’s $20-billion tourism industry surprisingly unshaken. What the 6.7 temblor cost in terms of tourism was mitigated by the hordes of insurance adjusters and emergency relief workers who flooded the area in the months directly following the quake, analysts said.

The 1994 World Cup drew its own share of both international tourists and out-of-towners, contributing markedly to what proved to be L.A.'s strongest summer in four years.

“June and July were very strong in terms of occupancies. And hotels continued to report increased bookings even in August because people had postponed their trips until after July to avoid the World Cup crowds,” said Michael Collins, senior vice president of the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau.

In fact, L.A. County’s hotel occupancy--one measure used to gauge the industry’s health--was at its highest since 1990: 66.3%, up from 61.9% in 1993, according to Los Angeles-based PKF Consulting. Orange County’s occupancy rate dipped slightly to about 66% while Long Beach was up 3.7% to 52%.

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Los Angeles County’s hotel occupancy rate, though, is expected to remain flat in 1995, due primarily to fewer large bookings at the new Los Angeles Convention Center.

The number of conventioneers, however, is set to rebound substantially in the years to come. The Los Angeles Convention Center is already scheduled to house 20 meetings in 1996--double this year’s total--and is still accepting bookings.

And with last week’s opening of the musical “Miss Saigon” at the Ahmanson Theater, many downtown Los Angeles hotels will be offering overnight packages--theater tickets plus a night’s accommodation--in order to draw visitors from outlying areas, according to PKF hotel consultant Bill Baltin.

Meanwhile, the relatively weak U.S. dollar should continue to entice big-spending tourists, especially those from Japan and Germany, while the recovering U.S. economy will bring more domestic travelers, analysts said.

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“Following recessions, Americans first buy durable goods, then turn to discretionary items like travel,” said Shawn Flaherty, a spokesperson for the Travel Industry Assn. in Washington, D.C. “And it looks like the pent-up demand for travel will be satisfied this year.”

Still, despite marked improvements in the local and national economies, Los Angeles was hard pressed last year to shake its international reputation as a crime-ridden metropolis.

Fears of violence, notably the March 25 shooting deaths of two Japanese students in San Pedro, helped reduce the flood of Japanese tourists to a virtual trickle during the first six months of 1994, said Shiro Monden, general manager of Los Angeles-based Japan Travel Bureau International, a large operator of tours from Japan.

But Japanese business jumped 20% after July as booming development in Las Vegas lured travelers interested in Nevada-California tours, he said.

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While international tourism looks generally bright for 1995, Monden cautioned that the recent earthquake in Kobe, Japan, may slow the tourist traffic from Japan for the first part of the year.

Like Las Vegas, Southern California has launched its own attempts to polish its somewhat tarnished image. Universal CityWalk, Old Town Pasadena and the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica have emerged to replace Westwood Village and Melrose Avenue as tourist magnets.

Meanwhile, area theme parks are planning some improvements of their own.

At Disneyland, 1994 “started out as a rough year,” due primarily to sluggish international tourism, said spokesman John McClintock. The Anaheim theme park compensated at least partially by offering a variety of local promotions designed to lure more Southland residents.

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Although the park does not disclose its attendance figures, the industry trade journal Amusement Business reported that Disneyland attendance was down a steep 10% to an estimated 10.3 million in 1994.

But Disneyland sees “definite signs of a comeback across the board” this year, McClintock said. Indeed, the park saw fit to raise its admission price for adults this month to $33 from $31. The Magic Kingdom anticipates a boom in both international and local guests due to the park’s 40th Anniversary celebrations and its newest attraction--an interactive, computer-generated Indiana Jones Adventure thrill ride--slated to open March 3.

The ride is designed to inspire return visits. “There are virtually an infinite variety of experiences, so you can have a different adventure every time you go through,” McClintock said.

Universal Studios Hollywood, where attendance slumped slightly last year due to the quake--following a year of record attendance in 1993--expects a “terrific year” in 1995, with a rise in foreign visitors and the opening of new attractions, said Universal spokesman Michael Gray.

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Although neighboring CityWalk experienced one well-publicized incident of violence last year--a melee among alleged gang members in August--Universal Studios did not experience any negative impact from the brawl, Gray said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

More Visitors

Tourism rose in Los Angeles County in 1994, despite the area’s many problems. Overnight visitors, in millions:

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‘84: 22.3 ’89: 25.2 ’94: 22.2

Source: Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau


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