California's travel industry is again debating the state's practice of taking hotel bookings over the Web and toll-free phone lines, under a contract with two private firms.

Travel agents support a bill in the legislature (SB 1606) to end the practice. Groups representing travel suppliers, on the other hand, say the bill is too broad and could jeopardize other programs, such as the production of visitor guides. Besides, they say, agents have bigger fish to fry.

We've seen this movie. This debate was played out in California, and in these pages, two years ago when the idea was hatched. The plan went ahead despite agency protests, but the Division of Tourism, to its credit, agreed to put a link on its site so that Web users could choose to hook up with a travel agent.

The site offers two choices: "Click Here to Make On-Line Lodging Reservations" and "Click Here to Use a Travel Agent."

We chose the latter and found the promised links to ASTA and ARTA. But ARTAOnline is still under development and offers no way to locate a travel agent. ASTAnet has a search engine, but if you select California from the list of destinations, which users would be expected to do if they just hyperlinked from a California page, then the ASTA search engine doesn't work, no matter what ZIP code you're in (we tried a dozen).

California should not be running a hotel-booking service in competition with travel agents, even if it outsourced the project to private companies, and even if agents have bigger fish to fry, which they do.

It is right for agents to fight this. But it's hard to suppress the notion that they'd be more right if they had also managed to make better use of the opportunities that the California Web site presented to them. Nothing will make people book on line faster than a dead link to the alternative.

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