SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- A war of words erupted between California travel industry leaders and the state's travel agent lobbying group over a bill that would do away with a hotel reservations service accessible through the state's Web site and toll-free numbers.

Both sides are vowing to show up in force at an April 10 hearing of the Senate Business and Professions Committee in Sacramento.

State travel officials, speaking at an industry conference last week, charged that Senate Bill 1606, introduced by state Sen. Jackie Speier (D-South San Francisco), threatens the entire California Marketing Act, the state's unique private-public partnership to raise funds to promote travel to California.

Contracts with private companies, such as San Mateo, Calif.-based WorldRes, which handles the Web site booking service, are an integral part of the marketing act, said James Abrams, president of the California Hotel and Motel Association.

The bill, which would prohibit the state Division of Tourism from entering into contracts with private companies to arrange travel-related services, would jeopardize not only the reservations service but other Division of Tourism activities, such as the publication of visitors guides, he said.

However, travel agent leaders of the California Coalition of Travel Organizations, which is sponsoring the bill, said industry leaders' statements about SB 1606 are misleading.

They said the measure would have no impact on the marketing act and only targets the state's Web site and toll-free numbers, which are now linked to the booking service.

Susan Tanzman, a CCTO official and owner of Martin's Travel, Los Angeles, said industry officials are "trying to unite the entire travel industry against this bill by saying it would do away with the marketing act, and that isn't the case."

"All we want to do is make sure that the state of California's Web site and toll-free numbers are not used to promote one or two private businesses."

The issue rose to the forefront last week at two conferences held days apart -- the California Conference on Tourism in Sacramento and the ASTA Western Regional Conference in Victoria, British Columbia.

At the Sacramento conference, John Marks, president of the California Travel Industry Association and the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, urged industry professionals to sign petitions to kill SB 1606.

Marks called the travel agents' continued focus on the reservations service "absurd" because the travel agent community is faced with larger competitive threats than the Web site and toll-free numbers, which are generating little business at present.

In addition, he said the agent community "is isolating itself from the travel industry and that is a problem."

Abrams was also forceful: "The leadership of the CCTO is fixated on the reservations system, and at this point they are looking at winning for the sake of winning."

Abrams and Marks said the compromise reached two years ago to include a "Find a Travel Agent" button on the Web site, which links to ASTA and ARTA sites, should appease the agents.

ARTA, which had not opposed the booking service once the agent-link button was installed, never launched its agent-referral system.

The ASTA site includes an agent-referral system; however, a recent check showed few participating agents declaring themselves to be California specialists.

At the ASTA conference several CCTO members who are also ASTA chapter leaders urged agents to sign a petition supporting SB 1606, saying the state has no business using its Web site and toll-free numbers to compete against agencies.

Also supporting the CCTO in its efforts is the U.S. Tour Operators Association, which successfully blocked plans by the Irish government last year to sign a contract with one private tour operator to operate the Irish Tourist Board's Web site and toll-free numbers.

CCTO president Diane Embree said tour operators and travel agents want "a level playing field" and for the state Division of Tourism to stick to providing tourism information and not compete against private business.

At a press conference, ASTA president Joe Galloway said the Society has not taken a stand on SB 1606 at the national level but that ASTA, in principle, is opposed to taxpayer-sponsored services -- such as California state Web site and toll-free numbers -- being used to compete against private industry.

ASTA has not taken a stand because the San Diego chapter, which is not a member of the CCTO, has not endorsed CCTO's efforts in regards to SB 1606, Galloway said.

ASTA and CCTO officials said it is important to stop the state of California's efforts to accept reservations on its Web site and toll-free numbers so that other states do not follow suit.


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