There is a popular Los Angeles post card these days portraying the “four seasons of disaster” riots, fires, earthquakes and floods. Cute for some, but for those whose livelihood is tourism the decade’s catastrophes and economic slump have been no joke.
Now, as the summer vacation season nears, the tourism drought appears to be over. Industry experts credit an improving world and national economy, revived interest in areas such as the Sunset Strip and fading memories of National Guard troops bivouacked in South Central.
“We’re riding a boom in L.A. Every indicator is that tourism is as high or higher than it’s been in a long time,” said Saul Leonard, head of Saul F. Leonard Co. Inc., a Century City-based gaming and hospitality consultant. “We’ve had an improved image after several years of no high-profile problems, and that image is bolstered by exposure from shows like ‘Baywatch’ and ‘Melrose Place.’ All of a sudden, Los Angeles is the place to come again.”
This year, for example, hotel occupancy in Los Angeles County is expected to average 71 percent, according to the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, up from 70 percent in 1996 and 66.5 percent in 1994. (Anything over 70 percent generally reflects a healthy industry.)
And as demand for lodgings goes up, so has the average price for rooms from $84 in 1995 to $92 this year.
So who are these visitors, and why are they coming?
Many of them are from overseas. In 1996, the numbers of international visitors to Los Angeles increased by 7.3 percent over 1995, while the numbers of domestic visitors rose 4.2 percent.
“This is all based on emerging markets,” said Michael Collins, executive vice president and chief operating officer of the Visitors Bureau.
“There is a whole world of travelers that didn’t exist 25 years ago,” he said. “Much of this is in Asia and Southeast Asia, and Los Angeles has a geographic advantage for that, in addition to its appeal as an entertainment center.”
Domestically, there appears to be an increase in all three visitor segments meetings and conventions, business travelers, and leisure seekers, according to Bruce Baltin, senior vice president of PKF Consulting, a Century City group which monitors the tourist industry.
Baltin believes much of the increase is business travel is related to the booming entertainment and high-technology sectors.
In addition, he said, the improving economy is leading companies to loosen up travel budgets.
“A lot of companies which are doing better these days are having conventions and meetings for which there wasn’t money a few years ago,” Baltin said.
All of this is good news for the local economy and for the estimated 254,000 people who owe their jobs to tourism the third largest industry in L.A., according to Jack Kyser, chief economist for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.
Overall, tourism spending generates 5 percent of countywide employment and 3 percent of the gross regional product, according to the Visitors Bureau. In 1996 direct spending by overnighters in the county added up to $10.5 billion, which was up by 8.2 percent from $9.7 billion in 1995.
There is disagreement over just how much the drop in tourists a few years ago was due to fallout from things like riots as opposed to the nation’s sagging economy.
“My sense is that people are always interested in going to Los Angeles, and things like riots and earthquakes and fires they can take in stride,” said Washington Post assistant travel editor James Yenckel, who writes on California tourism.
The biggest drawing card, Yenckel said, continues to be show business.
“More than anything, people are excited about Hollywood,” Yenckel said. “A lot of people come just once in their lifetime and that’s where they want to go. They’ll go to Disneyland and the beach and all of that, but they come for Hollywood.”
Of course, “Hollywood” the place remains very much a work in progress.
Linda May, a 22-year-old tourist visiting from London last week, said she was looking forward to strolling Hollywood Boulevard and seeing the heart of the film industry.
Needless to say, she wound up being disappointed.
“We drove over to the Chinese theater and walked around there the other day and, there wasn’t much there to see other than the stars’ hand prints,” said May.
Industry experts agree that Hollywood is often a let-down.
“The biggest challenge is whether we can effectively revitalize Hollywood and turn it into a better tourist attraction,” said Leonard. “Whether there’s a new focal point in Burbank or wherever it doesn’t matter as long as there is something people perceive as Hollywood and it is whole again.”
Hollywood has launched a program to reinvigorate its most alluring stretch, the Walk of Fame area along Hollywood Boulevard, said Kerry Morrison, director of the Hollywood Entertainment District, the name of a business improvement district underway for six months.
Over the next five years the area will see new landscaping and streetscaping, as well as the revitalization of the Egyptian theater and other projects such as a shopping and entertainment complex around the Chinese Theater.
There also is the planned expansion of the Universal Studios Inc. property in Universal City. Universal is planning to reinvent itself as a destination resort complete with a range of family and luxury hotels that will increase the likelihood people will take day trips to nearby Hollywood on the planned Metro Rail subway.
Universal is planning to develop as many as five new hotels totaling 2,500 rooms the most ambitious among a number of proposals and plans in various pipelines for new lodgings, according to Baltin of PKF Consulting.
In the meantime, though, things could get tight. “This could be a problem after a few years. In fact it’s sometimes a problem now in places like Santa Monica where it’s already hard to get a room much of the year,” he said.
For vacationers east of the Rockies, Hollywood the image is in fact about the best reason to visit Los Angeles, according to Cliff Stern, co-owner of Windy City Travel in Chicago and a former Angeleno.
“People from Chicago are interested in Hollywood and seeing stars, but Los Angeles has never been a great destination for people here,” Stern said. “They are used to having good transportation systems, which L.A. doesn’t have. And if they want Los Angeles things like the beach or Disney, they can get that in Florida.”
Perhaps much of what travelers like about Los Angeles can be found in other places, but there are a few things that give the city an attractive edge, according to Collins.
“Theme parks are enormously powerful marketing machines and we have a concentration of them unmatched anywhere,” Collins explained. “We have a good distribution mechanism, meaning the internationational airport, and as for the defining characteristic, we are the entertainment capital of the world.”