Tahoe tourism struggling after fire

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE -- Steve Parris mans the desk for the U.S. Forest Service's Taylor Creek Visitors Center.

It's one of the nicest spots on the south shore. There's plenty of parking, lots of nice nature trails and a no-fee, sandy beach just down the path. There is a paved bike path nearby that takes riders over to Camp Richardson or the famed Tallac historic sites.

In the fall, the kokanee salmon clog Taylor Creek in their an- nual spawning run.

But while most summers the visitors center is a bustling place, this summer has been a little different.

"Even the weekends are slow," Parris said. "We usually get up to 1,500 people a day, but we're not getting even half that now."

As the south shore enters its typically slow post-Labor Day "shoulder season," tourism officials are still tabulating the devastating effect of June's Angora fire on the area's economy. By many accounts, occupancy in south shore hotels, motels and vacation rentals through July was down 8 percent or more compared with the same period a year ago. Revenue at many re- tail establishments also has been off, according to tourism officials, and gambling revenue dropped more than 7 percent.

"We took a pretty strong hit right after the fire," said Jerry Bindel, president of the South Lake Tahoe Lodging Association and general manager of the Lakeland Village complex in South Lake Tahoe.

"The media coverage of the fire was so extensive that people got the impression that the fire was more devastating than it was.

"It was a terrible tragedy, but if you weren't familiar with the South Lake Tahoe area, you might have gotten the impression that the entire area burned. This prompted a lot of people to cancel their plans to vacation here. They just didn't understand how big the lake is."

The Angora fire broke out June 24 in the Tahoe Paradise neighborhood of El Dorado County, and for the next week, it tore through timber and neighborhoods, consuming 254 homes in the first day and 3,100 acres of wilderness before it was stopped and surrounded on the edge of South Lake Tahoe. The blaze burned to within a mile of the Tahoe shoreline, but it never encroached on city limits. Property damage totaled $160 million.

The Angora fire's effect on tourism also showed in the July gross gambling revenues report released by the Nevada Gaming Control Board.

Casinos at the south end of Lake Tahoe saw revenues fall 7.3 percent from the same month in 2006, according to the report. And July's declines at the south shore were compared with a weak July 2006, when revenues fell 6.6 percent from a year earlier.

"Most of the hotels had half their rooms filled with firefighters," said Reno gambling analyst Ken Adams. "They depend on those rooms to generate gaming revenues."

The south shore was not alone in its July struggle: Casinos at the north end of Tahoe also saw gross revenues fall 7.3 percent; Carson City-Carson Valley revenues fell 4.4 percent and Washoe County revenues tumbled 7.7 per- cent, the report showed.

Although area hotels, motels and vacation rentals got a minor boost from housing emergency crews and displaced homeowners, the month of July was dismal from an economic standpoint. Long-term vacations were canceled and even the "drive-up" tourists from California dropped off as vacationers pictured ash-choked lake water and charred campgrounds.

The fire mostly ravaged residential areas and wildland rarely used by tourists.

Tourism officials reacted quickly, tapping into a special marketing fund created the year before.

The tourism improvement district had been set up by hotels, motels and property management businesses in November 2006 when industry leaders noticed that an increasing amount of the transient occupancy tax -- a levy put on room rents and collected by the city of South Lake Tahoe -- was going to funding municipal services, such as fire and police.

The new self-assessed contributions bring in about $1.5 million annually, Bindel said. And unlike the occupancy tax, which takes a long time and a great deal of red tape to acquire, it was readily accessible. So the lodging association immediately began a $100,000 counteroffensive.

Actor and comedian Kevin Nealon, a 10-year resident of the lake, recorded radio spots for Lake Tahoe's feeder markets in Sacramento and the Bay Area, telling people the lake still was blue and that he no longer was skinny-dipping in it because of a restraining order. Another ad featuring Blue Man Group kayaking ran in Sunset magazine. Gov. Swarzenegger also made public statements reassuring vacationers that Lake Tahoe was still an excellent destination for a summer trip.

South Lake Tahoe Chamber of Commerce President Betty "B" Gorman said summer business picked up after that, particularly among drive-up customers. Smaller inns and bed and breakfast houses did good business, she said, but some of the larger hotels still had empty rooms.