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Gas prices not affecting ‘Open,’ tourism

Despite the fact gas has topped $4 a gallon in San Diego County and throughout Southern California, the local tourism industry does not expect much of an effect on the number of out-of-town visitors coming out for the U.S. Open in La Jolla next week or to vacation here elsewhere this summer - at least not just yet.

“Every year what we see with those (gas) spikes is that the (tourist) impacts have really been negligible,” said Sal Giametta, vice president of public affairs for San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau (ConVis), a private, non-profit, mutual benefit corporation composed of approximately 1,100 member organizations. “That’s because people seem to get very resourceful when it comes to how they spend their vacation dollars.”

Giametta said, historically, when the cost of fuel has gone up in recent years, travelers have found a way to compensate by cutting elsewhere in their vacation budgets. “They know how to make up for those extra costs elsewhere in their trip,” added Giametta, “renting less expensive properties or buying fewer souvenirs. What we’ve seen is other economic factors compound this (fuel) spike that are a bit more dramatic: the global credit crunch, the volatile stock market, the declining housing market, increased costs for things from health care to food. Add on top of that increased gas prices, and all of these things play into consumer confidence. And that has a big part to play in impacting spending behavior. Of course, leisure travel is subject to the whims of consumer confidence.”

Mike Antolini, manager of the 2008 U.S. Open for the USGA, has been involved in advance preparation for the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines for a couple of years now. He has been in San Diego since July 2006, opening up an onsite office which he said has been “managing the outside of the ropes operationally,” in connection with the much-anticipated international golfing event. “The U.S. Open was awarded here in 2002,” Antolini pointed out. “Things are very busy. With so many moving parts, with everyone coming out to such a large event, there is not only prestige inside the ropes, but outside the ropes. It’s a true, major event and a major championship.”

Above all else, the U.S. Open is about the golf. “It’s about seven days of golf to crown a national champion on June 15 after the final round,” said Antolini. “We’ll have 40,000 to 50,000 people onsite with concessions and bleacher locations and merchant pavilions and corporate hospitality tents and all the other facilities. There is a massive infrastructure. Everyone wants to come to the U.S. Open who is a golf fan or a sports fan in the area. Everyone can expect something special.”

The U.S. Open is good for the local economy, wherever it has been held. Giametta of ConVis noted, the past seven years, that the U.S. Open has had an average attendance of 250,000 for the four days of the tournament. “Fifty or 60 percent of attendees are from out of town,” he added. “The USGA utilizes 8,500 hotel rooms over an 18-day period for staff, players and the media.”

Giametta said ConVis developed a golf marketing initiative to promote the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines Golf Course. “The objective was to raise awareness about San Diego being a premiere golf destination,” he said. “It’s been a year-long, multi-media campaign that has gone out to TV, radio, print and online activity as well. The focus has been on creating momentum and excitement about the U.S. Open, and about San Diego as a great destination for golf.”