California's Tourism Experiences 'Disastrous' Start to 1997

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- Plagued by mud slides, floods and storms, the California tourism industry has had a "disastrous" start to 1997, said John Poimiroo, director of the California Division of Tourism.

The South Lake Tahoe ski and gaming area, for example, was closed after Interstate 50 was blocked, and damage to Yosemite National Park has been estimated at $178 million.

A study conducted for the Division of Tourism concluded that $343 million in economic and physical damage resulted from January's storms, not including the cost to repair Yosemite.

"Closure of travel to South Lake Tahoe, along the Coast Highway, and to Yosemite, combined with damage to the north coast and other areas, has discouraged group and individual travel now and through spring and summer," said Poimiroo, speaking at the California Conference on Tourism.

Although both Yosemite National Park and Highway 50 leading to South Lake Tahoe are expected to open within 60 days, the closures have occurred during a critical time when travelers plan for their spring and summer vacations.

"We have to positively communicate that Yosemite will be open," he said.

Yosemite, which draws more than 4 million visitors annually, ranks after Disneyland as the second-most-visited attraction in the state.

The 1997 tourism slump comes after a rosy 1996, when travel spending grew 4.8% to $57.8 billion and hotel occupancies were up 3.6% across California to a statewide average of 69.9%.

"Considering the disastrous start we've had in 1997, I doubt we can sustain the same growth," Poimiroo said.

California also continues to lose market share to other destinations -- Florida, Nevada and Hawaii, in particular -- that are more aggressively promoting themselves, he said.

For the first three quarters of 1996, California's percentage of all U.S. travel dropped 0.1% to its lowest level ever, he said.

Some 10.5% of Americans traveled within California during the period, compared with 12.3% in 1989.

"I am concerned that the success of this past year by individual businesses will not be understood in the context of how we're doing overall," he said.

"As long as California is declining in total share of travel and tourism, all businesses in our state are losing, whether or not their particular balance sheet looks good."

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