Catalina’s unexpected tourist season

Catalina visitors
A sign welcomes cruise ship shoppers in downtown Avalon. One Catalina official said the island is expecting 25 cruise ships to stop by this month, up from the usual eight.
(Spencer Weiner / Los Angeles Times)

City crews, dispatched before sunrise, hosed down streets, scrubbed public restrooms and strung up Christmas lights. Boutique shops were placing urgent orders for more T-shirts and swimsuits. The semi-submersible vessel Nautilus added three daily tours of Avalon’s crescent-shaped harbor.

Then there was Michael Upton, owner of Wet Spot Rentals, whose family worked late into the night at their kitchen table painting white and blue images of Dodgers jerseys on fist-sized dried starfish, souvenirs he sells for $7.50 each.

“It’s too bad it had to happen because of a nasty bug,” he said from behind the small counter of his wood-framed business a few yards away from a pier where cruise ship passengers disembark. “But we’re enjoying an unexpected windfall.”

Santa Catalina Island merchants and restaurant owners were scrambling Saturday to prepare for their most lucrative May in memory as cruise lines rerouted from destinations in influenza-plagued Mexico to Avalon.

It could not have come at a better time, according to residents of Avalon, which has a year-round population of 3,500. The end of winter saw a precipitous drop in business because of a distressing combination of problems: the ailing economy, higher cross-channel fares from the mainland 22 miles away, and a lingering lull in visitors since much of the island was charred by a devastating fire in May 2007.

Business was down 18% in February and March, Avalon officials said.

All that changed after the U.S. State Department on Monday issued an advisory that U.S. citizens should avoid unnecessary travel to Mexico.

The next day, Wayne Griffin, president of the Catalina Island Chamber of Commerce, and his staff “started making telephone calls to the cruise lines with this message,” he said. “We hate to benefit at someone else’s expense, but if you are looking for alternatives, we’d love to have you drop by.”

The results far exceeded his expectations. “We’re expecting 25 cruise ships in May, instead of the usual eight,” he said. “Each one of those ships means $300,000 in passenger spending and tax revenues,” or about $7.5 million.

“For two or three Avalon businesses I can think of,” he added, “this unintended benefit means they may not have to close up shop.”

Instead, they and the rest of the city were gearing up for an onslaught of visitors.

Avalon normally hosts a cruise ship on Monday and Tuesday each week. But on Friday, two cruise ships dropped anchor off Avalon. Two more showed up Saturday, and two were expected today.

Trying to keep up with demand, Catalina Island Tours hired 15 people from the mainland to help shuttle cruise ship passengers to and from Avalon with a fleet of small shore boats operating during extended hours.

“Taking passengers on and off the cruise ships presents a great logistical challenge in terms of ensuring that there is enough fuel on hand and that the boats are maintained,” said Nilda Parrado, the company’s executive director.

Gripping the helm of a shore boat while making a 1/4 -mile trip to the massive white Carnival Paradise ship, with 2,000 passengers aboard, David Howell said, “Like everyone else in the country, we’re hurting because of the economy. Now, we have an audience we didn’t plan on. It would be nice to lock some of them in as return visitors.”

Russ Armstrong, owner of Armstrong’s Seafood, a top-notch restaurant in downtown Avalon, had a more pressing issue on his mind.

“Wouldn’t it be great to get some mariachis playing for these people as they disembark?” he asked. “We’ve got to get some out here immediately.”

“After all,” he added, “these people had their minds set on Mexico. Some mariachis would put a smile on their faces.”

Nonetheless, there were few complaints among the thousands of visitors who strolled along the city’s quaint streets Saturday, many of them clutching shopping bags or gathering in local watering holes facing Avalon’s cozy harbor.

Among them was a rowdy party of 14 in Luau Larry’s celebrating Jason Burkhart’s last days as a bachelor.

“They rerouted us -- we were supposed to be in Ensenada today,” said Burkhart, 30. “That’s OK,” he added, eliciting laughs from his spirited brethren. “I don’t speak Spanish anyway!”

Burkhart’s prospective best man figured it was time for a toast. Clinking beer bottles, they said in unison, “No matter where we go, we stay together!”

Down the block and around the corner, local masseuse Karlyn Blackwell, 23, sat on a stool outside the entrance of a small business featuring a sidewalk sign, with eye-catching balloons and ribbons attached, that read: “Cruise Ship Special. $75 for 50-minute massage. Couples, $150.”

“Friday was crazy,” she said, shaking her head. “I was working customers back to back -- no pun intended.”

“All my tips are going toward my wedding next year,” she added. “We’re going to take a honeymoon cruise to Mexico.”

Exactly how long the boon will last is anybody’s guess in Avalon.

In the meantime, John Lafleur, owner of a clothing store called Island Threadz, was making the most of it.

“As soon we heard that cruise ships were being rerouted here,” he said, “we called our vendors in Hawaii, South Carolina and Idaho and had them fly out shipments of our most popular silk-screened T-shirts.”

“See this?” he asked, holding up a red sweat shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “Lifeguard. Catalina Island. Latt N33°, Long W118°.”

“I normally sell about 60 a day to cruise ship passengers,” he said. “I just ordered a thousand of them.”

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