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It’s always said that San Diego tourism, the county’s third-largest industry, is insulated from — if not immune to — recessions and high gas prices. When the economy sags and/or gas prices zoom, Angelenos and Zonies, in particular, cancel long trips and drive to San Diego for a vacation. Year after year, almost 70 percent of tourists come to San Diego by auto, and this so-called drive market bolsters the local economy. This year, however, there are signs that the old axiom might be shedding a bit of relevance.

According to statistics from Smith Travel Research, San Diego hotel occupancy is down 3.1 percent this year through March, compared with the same period last year. It was down 2.8 percent in March and 6.3 percent in February. Over the past year, the average room rate has moved up 2 percent to $137.79, but that doesn’t begin to keep up with reported inflation. La Jolla hotel guru Jerry Morrison says that the actual inflation rate is much higher than what the government tells us — perhaps running 10 percent now. That means the room rate should have moved up much more just to keep up with costs.

Occupancy rates are lagging throughout the nation, and the decline seems to be accelerating. Nationwide, occupancy was down 4.6 percent in March, and it’s down 2.7 percent for the year to date. For both the nation and San Diego, the visitor numbers were off slightly last year.

“For a city so used to doing better and better and better, this might be a problem for us, although it is a little early to tell,” says Morrison. And the drive market? “That’s the old rule of thumb that may have worked five or ten years ago. I’m not sure it’s working anymore. People are worrying about losing their houses, their jobs; everything they touch costs more money. We could be in for interesting times in the hotel industry.”

Employment in the local hotel/motel industry is holding up, but it’s not holding up the entire economy, as in the past. Accommodation jobs grew by only 0.6 percent between February and March, according to Employment Development Department figures. Over the past year, they were up only 1.9 percent.

Hotel expert Bob Rauch is not so worried about 2008, because the government and Federal Reserve will pump things up in an election year, as they always do. But he is concerned about the following several years. He owns the Homewood Suites by Hilton in San Diego–Del Mar and the Hilton Garden Inn in Torrey Hills. He is also chairman of the San Diego County Hotel-Motel Association and the San Diego North Convention & Visitors Bureau. And he teaches hospitality entrepreneurship at San Diego State. Rauch believes 32 million travelers will visit San Diego County this year, up from 31.4 million last year. Spending by those visitors will rise almost 4 percent to $8.1 billion, but inflation should eat up that increase, and then some. The average room rate might rise only 3 or 4 percent — again, not keeping up with inflation. The U.S. Open golf tournament at Torrey Pines next month should bring some visitors, he says.

Year after year, attracting tourists is not San Diego’s problem. Historically, “the problem has been too much supply [of hotels and motels],” says Rauch. “When we built too much in the late 1980s, overbuilding downtown by a wide margin, we got a combination of too many rooms and a recession. That is when tourism really goes into a funk. It only occurred one time — in 1991 to 1995.” This year, there will be 1869 hotel rooms coming online. “That’s only enough to drop occupancy [rates] by a couple of points.”

Election-year government spending and credit creation will bring a faux stability to the local and national economies this year, “but I do believe we will have a recession in 2009, and it might have impact for three years,” says Rauch.

Skip Hull of CIC Research says this year should be “fairly flat with possibly some modest growth.” One reason is that the drive market in Southern California alone holds a potential of 20 million visitors. The weak dollar makes it “more expensive to travel internationally. U.S. destinations for U.S. travelers look more inviting.”

“Generally, we see a slight economic downturn. Not a lot,” says Jack Giacomini, whose company operates the Crowne Plaza, Mission Valley Resort, and Hawthorn Suites, all in Mission Valley. “Our Crowne Plaza [formerly the Hanalei] is way ahead of last year and significantly ahead of budget.” Overall, “It’s too early to tell about next year, but advanced bookings are not slowing down. The airlines are not helping with all of their troubles, however. Where we are seeing cutbacks is in people not shopping as much or taking the lower-cost items in the restaurants. Premium wine sales are down a bit. Luxury amenities that go with a holiday or business trip are getting hit.”

San Diego is not benefiting from the decline of the dollar against the euro. New York is getting that business. Says Morrison, “Europeans fly to New York for a couple or three days, go on a shopping trip. Everything they buy is so much cheaper. They fly home and are still ahead.” Orlando might get some of that business, along with Los Angeles. “But there are no international flights to San Diego, so it’s not happening so much here.” The buck’s decline against the Canadian dollar has not stimulated San Diego tourism that much either.

The strongest part of San Diego tourism is leisure travel. But the county is also a leading destination for business travel. “As the economy slows, and clearly the economy is slowing, one of the first things businesses cut back on is business travel generally and meetings in particular,” says Heywood Sanders, professor of public administration at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Sanders is the author of a seminal 2005 study showing that convention centers are vastly overbuilt around the country. “Lots and lots of cities say, ‘If we expand, we will get more business,’ ” thus exacerbating the glut, says Sanders. “San Diego and other cities are going to face a continuing level of very high competition and are likely to see their own attendance stall out or decline” in the economic recession or slowdown, he says. “San Diego is a prime destination and has been quite successful, but larger economic factors are going to impact everybody.”

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Anon92107 May 7, 2008 @ 12:17 p.m.

This story documents more of the totally unacceptable consequences of U-T/Davies/Bloodsucker Ruling Class corruption that is sucking the lifeblood out of San Diego.

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Don Bauder May 7, 2008 @ 12:53 p.m.

Response to post #1: The San Diego tourist industry wields inordinate power in San Diego. However, tourism is a good industry. It generates money from the outside, unlike many industries that simply recirculate money already inside the county. One downside is that pay is quite low. While the tourist industry throws its weight around, it is not as bad as the real estate development industry, which is at the heart of San Diego's political corruption. Best, Don Bauder

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Anon92107 May 8, 2008 @ 1:24 a.m.

Response to post #2: Don, I’m surprised to see you say: “While the tourist industry throws its weight around, it is not as bad as the real estate development industry.”

In the April 27, 2005 issue of "Voice of San Diego” James Goldsborough wrote a column: “San Diego: What Now?” which defines San Diego’s number one political problem that produced San Diego’s Financial Crises: “city's power brokers --- the ‘downtown business community,’ which is euphemism for ‘Republican Party,’ and The San Diego Union-Tribune, a Republican newspaper, has corrupted city democracy.”

The tourist industry is most certainly at least as corrupt as any group of San Diego bloodsuckers, and they have been committing larceny against San Diego taxpayers that has produced the financial crisis today.

The San Diego tourist industry should be paying far more tax revenue than they are, except for the fact that they have corrupted city politicians such as Golding, Murphy, Sanders and city councilmen which continues unabated to this day.

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Don Bauder May 8, 2008 @ 7:29 a.m.

Response to post #3: The transient occupancy tax should definitely go up. The tourist industry won't object as long as the tax receipts go back to tout tourism. That is not satisfactory; the money is needed for other things. Goldsborough is correct that the downtown business community has corrupted democracy, hand in hand with the Union-Tribune. The tourist industry is part of that downtown business community. But I think the real estate development industry is more destructive. With gifts from politicians, it continues to build homes while the infrastructure rots. Best, Don Bauder

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jcsuperstar May 8, 2008 @ 8:28 p.m.

We could have a good piece of the European spending if we had a proper airport with a long runway. Perhaps someday we can get Miramar and add on real estate when the cap off the adjacent landfill. But it will more likely come down to handing money to friends, as always. The ballpark, for instance, would have been ideally located in the old General Dynamics space in Kearny Mesa. Great highway access, central location, lots of potential parking, fantastic for local retail businesses, and low impact on residential neighborhoods. Instead, they stuck it downtown and probably on properties accumulated by someone friendly to City Hall.

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mythusmage May 8, 2008 @ 10:14 p.m.

There's a lot that can be done. Let's start with criminal prosecutions and forced resignations. I'm sure we could think of one judge who could be profitably removed from the bench.

Transportation:

Shut down Lindberg Field. Too busy, too dangerous, inadequate for its declared purpose. It would serve better as a feeder airport for Orange and LA county airfields.

Expand the rail lines between San Diego and LA on one hand, and between San Diego and Arizona on the other. Let's get freight off the freeways and expand passenger capacity.

Also expand the oil and gas pipelines to San Diego, and expand storage facilities. Our high gas prices are largely due to the lack of wiggle room caused by our lack of adequate storage.

Housing and Construction:

Allow denser development. Overbuild where infrastructure is concerned. Better to have more sewage capacity then we really need right now, then to have just enough and watch as a growing population strains it.

Outlaw neighborhood associations. It is the job of government to handle such matters, and an act of cowardice to allow neighborhood associations to abuse and oppress home owners, business owners, and residents.

Final Thoughts:

We could improve matters, but first we need to make people aware of how much the crap now occurring is costing them. We keep getting told that San Diego needs to raise taxes to get things down. Before we do that let's make sure what taxes we do pay are being spent effectively.

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jcsuperstar May 9, 2008 @ 2:39 a.m.

Additionally, to integrate the treated water better, I'd like to see a full infrastructure set up and require developers of X number or more unit developments to plumb with a separate feed to toilets. It is a horrendous waste to be flushing with potable water. Treated sewage is perfectly safe for toilets and lawn irrigation. We need to get much more water smart here.

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Don Bauder May 9, 2008 @ 6:25 a.m.

Response to post #5: Yes, the absence of direct flights to Europe hurts. The ballpark went downtown because it was viewed as a catalyst for redevelopment, despite all the evidence from other cities to the contrary. The result was a bunch of empty or near-empty condo high-rises, rather than the mix of buildings that was promised, and the people voted for. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder May 9, 2008 @ 6:32 a.m.

Response to post #6: Those are thought-provoking comments. San Diego should definitely overbuild infrastructure. That's wise future planning. Criminal prosecutions and forced resignations: yes, if we get the right people. Transit is essential, particularly with the price of oil seemingly headed for $150 or $200 a barrel. There should be no more expanding of expressways unless transit runs up the middle of them. I disagree on neighborhood associations: they can be a buffer against the developer domination of the politicians. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder May 9, 2008 @ 6:37 a.m.

Response to post #7: Yes, treated water should be used more widely for watering and toilet purposes. Actually, lawn and golf course watering should be scaled back sharply. Developers should definitely be forced to put in more infrastructure, if San Diego intends to continue building residential structures. Actually, I think there is little need for more residential building (excepting affordable housing) until infrastructure is improved greatly. Yours are interesting proposals. Best, Don Bauder

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JF May 10, 2008 @ 6:29 a.m.

Response to #6

Trying to build a good railroad from SD to Arizona broke more than one early San Diegan. Plus, rail takes a lot longer than driving. I agree with you in theory, but I'm not sure about the practicality.

I'm also not sure that storage is the problem with our fuel prices. I've seen fuel a lot cheaper in parts of CA where there isn't a pipeline around anywhere.

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Don Bauder May 10, 2008 @ 7:22 a.m.

Response to post #11: Yes, building a rail line to Arizona has been a financial nightmare in the past. The bottom line is this: over the years, San Diego has shunned transit in favor of building more highways. As LA has discovered, the more you build expressways, the more housing developments spring up, and the more congested the highways become. Gas is approaching $4.00. Oil is at $125 and some think it may rise to $150 and $200 -- but admittedly, who knows? The economic arguments for transit are more compelling. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder May 12, 2008 @ 9 a.m.

Response to post #15: Let's hear from Anon92107. Them's fightin' words. Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder May 12, 2008 @ 5:58 a.m.

Response to post #13 "...bursting with bed sores and rug blisters..." The old fumber is back! Best, Don Bauder

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Don Bauder May 13, 2008 @ 7 a.m.

Response to post #17: Anon92107 just has to answer those fumber charges.Best, Don Bauder

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