By LARRY KANTER
For tourism officials, it’s a worst-case scenario an out-of-town guest is gunned down just steps away from the front door of his or her hotel.
That nightmare became frighteningly real last week in Santa Monica, when a German tourist was killed in a botched robbery attempt near the upscale Loews Beach Hotel.
Horst Fietze, a 50-year-old visitor from East Germany, was shot three times in the chest during a hold-up while strolling down Appian Way with his wife and another couple on the evening of Oct. 12 what was to be the final evening of their Southern California holiday. The shots reverberated throughout Los Angeles, as those in the tourism business wondered what kind of impact the killing would have on the region’s image.
“Being able to feel safe plays a major role in attracting tourists,” said Ali Kasicki, general manager of the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. “When something like this happens, it always has a negative impact. You have to work very hard to reverse it and recover from it.”
Rolfe Shellenberger, senior travel consultant with Runzheimer International, said such an incident “can have a very damaging effect on tourism.
“In the tourism business, Santa Monica does not have a separate identity it’s part of Los Angeles,” Shellenberger said. “Many of the communities elsewhere in L.A. could be sullied.”
The Fietze killing comes amid a resurgence in L.A. tourism. After years of being hobbled by riots, earthquakes and recession, the region’s image is as strong as it’s been in years. Year to date, L.A. hotels have posted an average occupancy rate of about 76 percent, with an average nightly room rate of $108.14. Santa Monica’s numbers have been even more robust, with an occupancy rate of 83 percent and room rate of $163.
But perception can be a powerful thing. The shooting of a UCLA student in Westwood Village in the late ’80s is widely blamed for sparking that area’s downturn. A series of tourist murders in Florida hobbled that state’s tourism industry for several years.
Opinion was mixed on how to avoid such an impact in Los Angeles.
Shellenberger suggested that law enforcement agencies step up their presence in the area, cracking down on such relatively minor offenses as panhandling, vagrancy and graffiti in an effort to impart a sense of security among both tourists and locals.
A marketing campaign highlighting the area’s positive characteristics also would help, though David W. Stewart, a marketing professor at USC, notes that “you have to walk a fine line. You don’t want to draw such attention to safety that you suggest you’re unsafe.”
That seems to reflect the thinking of Los Angeles and Santa Monica tourism officials.
“This is a human tragedy,” said Michael Collins, executive vice president of the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau. “But I don’t think it would be appropriate to use it as a device to define the nature of the experience here. One isolated event does not redefine the way the world thinks of us.”
Collins’ counterpart in Santa Monica agreed. “This is the first time there has ever been any kind of incident like this,” said Beverly Moore, executive director of the Santa Monica Visitors Bureau. “It’s just something we’ll have to weather through.”
Santa Monica’s success in doing that could have a lot to do with how the foreign press reacts to the killing. The spate of tourist murders in Florida, for example, sparked a flurry of alarmist headlines in the European press, which sent the number of foreign visitors to the Sunshine State plummeting.
“Within 12 months, the rate of visitation by German tourists declined by 50 percent,” said Peter Yesawich, president and chief executive of Yesawich, Pepperdine & Brown, a travel marketing agency in Orlando, Fla. “All the European numbers trended downward. They are very risk-averse as tourists. When something like this happens, it has a real chilling effect on the numbers.”
Tourists from Germany are the largest single group of foreign visitors to Santa Monica, representing 11 percent of the city’s 2.3 million tourists in 1997. Germans represent the third-largest group of visitors to the greater Los Angeles area.
Despite the attention garnered by the Fietze killing, crime in Santa Monica has been down. The number of reported crimes in the city has dropped 41 percent since 1993, according to the Santa Monica Police Department. There were just two murders in the city in 1997, compared with four in 1996 and nine in 1993.
Yesawich says Santa Monica should expect at least a temporary drop-off in European visitors. “The bad news is that there will be an impact,” he said. “The good news is, memories are short.”