Uncharacteristically steamy days have many Los Angelenos hitting the beach, despite highly publicized reports of unhealthy contaminants in the water.


The problem for Venice Beach merchants, however, is that they're leaving their wallets at home.


Beach business appears to be booming everywhere but in Venice. Its historically wacky boardwalk is one of the nation's largest free tourist attractions, but the crowds are smaller this year. Venice shop owners blame higher gas prices, not the threat of gastroenteritis, for the dip in this summer's spending.


"We keep thinking that summer's about to kick in, but it's August already," said Jason Soto of Ocean Blue Company. Seal's "Kiss From a Rose" blared from his speakers at his store, packed with wooden masks, rain sticks and silver jewelry.


Meanwhile, more manicured beach communities like Santa Monica and Redondo Beach claim to be doing as well or better than 2005, with hotels in both cities reporting solid business and beach attendance figures up.


Radi Abdin, owner of Venice's Oceanside Gallery, a jewelry and pipe store on the boardwalk, blames the economy.


"Business has dropped," he said. "Gas is very expensive. People spend all their money on gas and can't afford food and drinks when they get here."


Just a few blocks north, however, Santa Monica businesses seem to be doing fine.


Richard Chacker, who owns Perry's Pizza and More Beach Rentals in Venice and Santa Monica, said his three Venice rental businesses are at or below last summer while his four food and rental businesses in Santa Monica are up slightly from last year. He blames shifts by L.A. city administrators.


"Anything that restricts or makes changes or problems for the visitor will confuse them and they tend to go off to other beaches like Santa Monica Redondo, Hermosa, Manhattan where it's consistent," Chacker said. "Right now Venice is a little confusing. Lots have been shut down, the bike path was closed off for a while. Anything that can create confusion can affect business."


Overall, revenue from most county beach parking lots is up. June income from the parking lot at the end of Venice's Washington Boulevard was up 13 percent over last year to $119,819. The lot north of Santa Monica's pier made $638,537 in June, up 28 percent from a year ago.


Beach business statistics are always anecdotal, said Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., but with gas prices pinching pocket books, it makes sense that hot days create a strong pull to the beach, an entertainment bargain.


"You'd have to say that for a lot of people who don't have other options, don't have air conditioning at their house, or enough money to go to an air-conditioned mall, the beach is their only alternative," Kyser said. He said that the pinch is harder for small merchants because beach purchases are "very discretionary."


"When times are good, you go to the beach and want a T-shirt and something to eat," he said, "but if your pocketbook is feeling the pain, you'll be a lookey-loo," he said.


The beach business pain seems to be confined to Venice.


Mara Smeltzer, president and chief executive of the Redondo Beach Chamber of Commerce, said her area is either up slightly or holding steady with last year. Redondo Harbor is holding, the Galleria is up from last year, and Riveria Village is the same or up slightly. The city's transient occupancy tax is up slightly, as are occupancy rates.


But Redondo may be a bigger draw for tourists, with its upscale hotels, stores and restaurants, while Venice's pizza-by-the-slice stands and "I'm-With-Stupid" T-shirts cater to a lower price point.


"You have to keep in mind that Santa Monica could be taking business away from Venice because Santa Monica has really reinvented itself," Smeltzer said, citing big-time high-end locales like Casa del Mar Hotel. "It seems we are attracting people that have the money to spend." Occupancy rates in Santa Monica and Marina del Rey were 83 percent in June, up 4 percent from 2005.


Surprisingly, attendance was down at both beaches in May according to the County of Los Angeles Lifeguard Division. Venice attendance dropped 45 percent to 463,500 compared to the year earlier and Santa Monica beaches were down 12 percent to 855,000.


Santa Monica went gangbusters in June, with attendance up nearly three times the previous year's turnout with 2,327,000. Venice statistics weren't yet available for June. Last year, Venice attendance topped one million in June, but didn't break the two million mark until July.


On the business side, experts are baffled as to why Venice is lagging behind last year.


"A lot of our visitors, especially the international ones, really like Venice and Abbot Kinney," said Christopher Heywood, manager of corporate communications, at LA Inc. the convention and tourist bureau. "There's a beach, but it's refined with all the galleries and restaurants. It's pedestrian friendly. And it's a historic area."


In Los Angeles, hotel occupancy rates were up three percent citywide in May over the same time last year. Prices were up too, 13 percent higher than 2005. Employment in tourism is also up one percent over last year.


Heywood said high gas prices are in some ways good for local tourism because the city attracts visitors who drive from San Diego, Las Vegas and Phoenix.


"L.A. actually benefits from high gas prices," he said. "Because we get people who drive short distances. We're probably not getting the travelers from New York, Dallas and Atlanta."

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