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Tourism Expected to Increase This Summer

TIMES STAFF WRITER

With joblessness and gasoline prices at historic lows and the stock market surging, confident Americans will take to the roads and skies in record numbers this summer, travel industry groups predicted Thursday.

That’s good economic news for California, still a top tourist destination despite losing some market share in recent years.

Indeed, the state was second only to Florida on Americans’ wish lists of places to visit this summer, according to an annual vacation survey by the Travel Industry Assn.

From 1993 to 1995, California was rated tops for vacations by 30% or more of Americans in the surveys. The state’s rating dipped to 28% in 1996 and 1997 before edging back to 30% this year, the travel group said. Florida was No. 1 at 36%, also up 2 percentage points.

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Officials at the Los Angeles Convention & Business Bureau predict 2% more visitors will arrive this year.

“We’ve had a steady increase lately, and we’re looking for more modest growth,” spokeswoman Carol Martinez said.

She cited Disneyland’s make-over of Tomorrowland as a strong regional draw. “And the opening of the Getty Center has called attention to the many cultural offerings of Los Angeles,” Martinez said.

In Orange County, summer visits by tourists peaked at 13 million in 1989, then slipped during the long recession. They recovered to 12.6 million in 1996 as Disneyland promoted the final months of the Main Street Electrical Parade, then fell again to 11.9 million last summer as its successor, the Light Magic Parade, fizzled.

Local travel industry officials believe that the renovated Tomorrowland and the strong economy could propel visits this summer beyond 1996 levels, perhaps matching that 9-year-old record, said Elaine Cali, a spokeswoman for the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor and Convention Bureau.

“As Disneyland goes, so goes Orange County,” Cali said.

While Walt Disney Co.'s Florida parks have been sterling performers lately, attendance at flagship Disneyland in Anaheim has fallen, the company said in papers filed recently with regulators. It blamed the decline mostly on El Nino and the closure of Tomorrowland.

With Tomorrowland scheduled to reopen May 22, park officials sound guardedly optimistic.

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“It looks like Tomorrowland is going to give Disneyland one of its best summers ever,” spokesman Tom Brocato said.

Travel Industry Assn. President William Norman said that last year at this time people were still “looking over their shoulders, not sure the great economy could last.” The vacation season last summer turned out better than expected because people decided at the last minute to take a trip.

The survey found that 51% of vacationers plan to take along children this year, up from 43% last summer. The favorite destinations listed by travelers with families were lakes and beaches (82%), camping, hiking and climbing (51%), fishing (50%) and theme parks (47%).

“With families out in record numbers and people wanting to go to the beach but also [be] near other attractions, California and all its diversities not surprisingly is very high on the list,” Norman said.

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“What’s remarkable,” Norman said, “is that so many more individuals than in the past are saying, ‘The economy is robust. My own personal situation is good. I think it’s going to stay that way, and I deserve a great vacation. I’ve earned it.’ ”

His group predicted U.S. travelers will take a record 251 million vacation trips this summer, up 3% from 244 million last year.

Historically low gasoline prices this summer also should provide further incentive for people to hit the road, observers said.

On average, gasoline should cost about a dime a gallon less than last summer, the U.S. Energy Department reported. After adjustments for inflation, summer gas prices should be the lowest ever, the federal agency said.

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This month, the price of regular self-serve unleaded gas averaged $1.10 a gallon nationwide, 15 cents less than a year ago, AAA said.

AAA spokesman Mike Morrisey predicted the prices would remain well below last summer’s peak of $1.29 per gallon, thanks to crude oil prices, which were down more than 40%, or $8 a barrel, from October to March.

Reuters news service contributed to this report.

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Finding Florida First

Florida tops the list of states Americans would most like to visit this summer, as it did last year. California ranks second. Top pleasure travel destinations:

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1998 1997 Florida 36% 34% California 30% 28% Hawaii 16% 17% Nevada 13% 12% New York 10% 12%

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Most Expensive Destinations

For families taking driving vacations this summer, California will represent a relative bargain. With an average cost of $261 per day for meals and lodging, it is not among the five most expensive places to visit. Priciest places to vacation:

Meals/Lodging Costs Combined

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Hawaii: $409

New York: $330

Massachusetts: $300

Louisiana: $284

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Illinois: $264

California: $261

U.S. average: $218

Meals Only

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Hawaii: $147

New York: $147

Delaware: $140

New Jersey: $138

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California: $129

Nevada: $129

Louisiana: $127

U.S. average: $108

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Lodging Only

Hawaii: $262

Massachusetts: $185

New York: $183

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Louisiana: $157

Florida: $149

Illinois: $149

California: $132

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U.S. Average: $110

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California Comparison

(meals and lodging)

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1997: $258

1998: $261

Note: Meal costs exclude beverages, taxes and gratuity; lodging is two-bed rate for two adults plus $12 for two children.

Sources: Travel Industry Assn. of America, American Automobile Assn.

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