By WADE DANIELS

Staff Reporter

As the Southern California economy goes, so goes Catalina tourism.

And with the local economy humming, 1998 is expected to be the biggest year for Catalina in nearly a decade.

The island's peak season is still six months away, but companies are already scrambling to prepare pouring millions of dollars into new boats, seaplanes and services.

"We believe there is a market of visitors in Southern California that (has been) ignored for many years," said Jim Thomson, chief operating officer of Long Beach-based Catalina Cruises. "We are spending the money needed to market the passenger service correctly and grow it."

Catalina Cruises' new owner, Newport Beach charter boat veteran Ray Handy, who bought the company last July, is adding a new $8 million catamaran to his fleet this summer.

The 450-passenger luxury vessel will wisk thousands of tourists a day from Long Beach to Avalon in about an hour, half the time it takes the company's current fleet of 700-passenger mono-hull vessels.

Thomson said he has conducted informal research over the past two years, asking hundreds of Southern Californians if they had visited Catalina recently.

"Everyone I came in contact with, I asked them if they had been to the island," Thomson said. "Probably only five to seven out of every 100 people I spoke to had been there, and a lot of those people said they went there for camp when they were kids."

More-dependable readings of potential demand are lacking because the Catalina Island Visitors Bureau and Chamber of Commerce hasn't had enough money to study the matter, said Wayne Griffin, the bureau's chief executive.

But Griffin did confirm that the island's economic fate is inseparably tied to that of Southern California, as about 85 percent of the island's visitors are from the region between Santa Barbara and San Diego.

The number of visitors going to Catalina on commercial ferry trips in the first 10 months of 1997 (629,940) was about 2 percent more than during the like period in 1996. Figures from November and December were not available as of last week. The Catalina chamber is projecting the 1998 visitor count to be up 4 percent from the 1997 count.

While the improvement to date has been modest, companies believe the untapped potential is considerable, warranting additional investment.

In addition to Catalina Cruises' new luxury catamaran, another Catalina ferry company is spending $2 million to spruce up its 500-passenger boat and a third operator is launching a marketing campaign to promote the 350-passenger luxury catamaran it added to its fleet last year.

In the air transport business, the one helicopter transporter to Catalina, Island Express Helicopter Service Inc., has added a third bird recently and is considering bringing back a seaplane service that hasn't been seen for almost a decade. "I think people might be up for a nostalgic experience of riding a seaplane to Catalina just like it used to be," said Mick Robinson, the company's general manager.

Besides the improving Southern California economy, another factor expected to boost Catalina tourism is the June opening of the $100 million Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.

"We expect a sizable bit of business to come from the new attraction because they're practically next door to us," Thomson said, referring to Catalina Cruises' pier at the Port of Long Beach.

Another company vying for a piece of the pie is Avalon-based Island Navigation Co., which plans to launch a new channel-crossing service this summer with two 149-passenger boats leaving once a day from Long Beach and Dana Point.

The company has had a tour business on the island since 1974 (offering glass-bottom boat tours and other services, and a boat taxi service). Unlike its competing island tour companies, it has not been able to strike a partnership agreement with either of the two companies that run ferries from Long Beach.

"One of the best ways to get customers for our tours is to package them with the trip across the channel," said Jay Feinberg, an independent consultant to Island Navigation. "Island Navigation needs a transportation with which it could package its tours, and since its (island tour) competitors have agreements with the transportation companies, Island has to start its own service."

He declined to discuss how much the company is spending to launch its channel-crossing service.

"I expect the overall market will grow for a few reasons," Feinberg said. "If nothing else, it's going to grow because increased competition between us and the carriers will push it up."

Catalina Channel Express Inc. is the only company that isn't launching a new boat or refurbishing its existing boats for 1998. However, just last year it added a 350-passenger catamaran to its fleet of six smaller mono-hull boats.

"(Our competitor) Catalina Cruises will probably introduce their new catamaran vessel with some force," said Elaine Vaughan, a vice president for Catalina Channel Express. "We'll be pushing the fact that we have the highest frequency of daily trips."

In 1997, Catalina Channel Express' business was up about 15 percent from the previous year, largely because of the addition of the new catamaran. Vaughan said the company has about a 60 percent market share.

The third and smallest service to Catalina is Newport Beach-based Catalina Passenger Service Inc. It has one 500-passenger boat that runs once a day during the peak months and on weekends and holidays at other times of the year.

Last week, the 9-year-old boat embarked on a trip to San Francisco, where it will undergo a $2 million renovation and engine overhaul, said company President Bob Black.

The company had about a 10 percent market share in 1996 and appeared on track to equal that in 1997, although final year-end figures were not tabulated as of last week.

With a refurbished boat and a strong Southern California economy, Black is projecting an 8 percent rise in business for 1998.

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