Al Qaeda Effect

San Diego travel business can feel it.

From top left: Keller, Johannsen, Fathie, Akhavan, Harris, Moshki, Davis, Parkins. "Our business dropped like a stone."
  • From top left: Keller, Johannsen, Fathie, Akhavan, Harris, Moshki, Davis, Parkins. "Our business dropped like a stone."

The complete financial impact of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center will never be accurately calculated, but among those most hurt are travel- and tourism-related businesses. Many of San Diego's travel and tourist businesses are still feeling the pain.

Abdala, Schoonover, Carrillo, Petill, Rethwish, Catania. "People are not flying, and those who are flying are going domestic."

Abdala, Schoonover, Carrillo, Petill, Rethwish, Catania. "People are not flying, and those who are flying are going domestic."

Le Travel Store sells luggage, travel equipment, and books from its Gaslamp Quarter store on Fourth Avenue. Owner Joan Keller believes the 9/11 attack nearly destroyed the travel industry. "It was immediately devastating. When you hear that travel has come back, it really hasn't come back in any sort of adequate way. It's still way down. What I read in industry media is that there are 25 percent fewer airline seats sold, and our business is down 25 percent. I was watching the Today Show, and they were discussing the U.S. Airways bankruptcy, and their travel experts said the same thing. He said that the airlines expected business to come back by now, and it hasn't. Right after the attack, our business dropped like a stone. We do Internet business and in our shop here in the Gaslamp Quarter, and it just ground to a halt. Nothing. It already was not a vigorous travel year, and we were already taking some cost-cutting measures, and it was so dramatic that we had to cut staffing, managers — it was a very difficult and painful time. We're still feeling the effects of it.

"The only thing we've been able to make up in income was when we did some significant discounting and we saw a little bit of a bump. The problem is, you can only do that so much and remain in business. We're actually considering some things — concentrating on things that people buy even when they're not traveling, like back-to-school backpacks and the like. Maybe some domestic travel operations aren't as hard hit as we are. We've always focused on independent international travel, and that's been hit hard. Even apart from September 11, we look at a map of the world and...our customers used to travel to places like Nepal. The political situation in Nepal is awful. India and Pakistan, you're not going to go there. Israel. Argentina and Brazil. Chile. The financial situation in South America has made that undesirable. The map is a mess right now when it comes to the view of the traveler. The map has really closed up. There are so many things going against travel right now. There is the fear factor, but I don't think that's the biggest one in not flying. There's the irritation factor of the increased security. The economy -- a lot of travel money was lost in the stock market. Travel — especially the kind we sell — requires overcoming inertia to go out and see the world. People are just sitting back. The joy of travel? We're not feeling joyful right now."

Gayla (who refused to give her last name or allow a photo) has managed the Super 8 Motel on Rosecrans Street in Loma Portal for nearly four years. "People are nesting, staying at home. After the attack, not only did consumer travel slow down, but business stays were knocked off. It just dropped. Sales income is down, but I wouldn't just judge it by 9/11, because the economy was going down anyway. Last summer was a really, really bad summer for everyone, even though they don't admit it; 9/11 was just the straw that broke the camel's back. We've managed to make up lost income by getting more business — contractors and things like that. There's a lot of building going on in San Diego, and construction workers from outside companies stay — that's probably 30 to 40 percent of our business. This summer has also been better. July was a really good month, and August has become a really good month." She would not disclose any figures about the drop in business.

Across Rosecrans Street at the Loma Lodge, manager Brian Johannsen was willing to discuss figures. "We're down $35,000 from a year ago. There's been a total change in business since 9/11. Foreigners are not traveling over here. We used to see a lot of French, a lot of Italians, and we're getting none. Immediately after the attack, we lost substantial occupancy and substantial revenue. That's even after upgrading all the rooms. There's been no way to make up the lost income. I have a coworker next door [at Howard Johnson's Inn] who used to work for me, and she said that during the week, they're running at 50 percent occupancy — in the summer! I hope the economy rebounds and people start traveling! I think it's the economy mixed with the fear. People don't want to get on a plane. In the winter we get a lot of Germans and Italians — everybody. All the foreigners come over here, and last winter, we had nobody. We were less than 80 percent occupied, and normally we're in the high 90s."

Amir Fathie is the assistant manager at West Coast Rent-a-Car, one of the many smaller car-rental shops near the airport. "It affected us greatly last year. I feel like it's starting to pick up for the month of August this year. After 9/11, the airport was closed for a few days and that affected us a lot. People were scared to travel, so there were a lot less tourists in town. People's fear of flying greatly reduced the amount of travel to San Diego. Our sales income is a lot lower than a year ago. I'd say we were down about 30 percent. We're hoping that the economy will pick up and tourism will pick up and people will start traveling. That also affects people traveling from Europe. We normally have a lot of Europeans coming in here during the months of June and July, but there was a great decline in European customers during those months this year. I don't know if their economies are shabby or if people are just afraid to fly with all the terrorist warnings in the U.S. — especially during the Fourth of July. A lot of things have affected it. I think all the businesses -- taxis, hotels, shuttles, restaurants — I think they've all been affected. They all rely on the tourists coming into town, and there's been a decline of tourists."

Michael Akhavan is the general manager of California Rent-a-Car near the airport. Akhavan's business has dropped so dramatically that one wonders how he keeps the doors open. "Our business is 75 to 80 percent lower than last year. That's because, on top of our regular rentals, we rent to a lot of foreign students, and they're just not coming like they were. They came from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait and Europe, but I'm afraid that the parents have taken a position not to send their kids to the U.S. to study English. Actually, right after the attack, we did not feel it as much as we do right now. There was little immediate impact. It's gradually dropped off. June, July, and August are usually our best months, and right now it's been our worst season. I haven't been able to make up for any of the lost income. I'm not just surprised, but disappointed too. UCSD also used to bring business, because they had summer dormitories for foreign students, and they are down big-time. The vacancies are a lot more than last year. I'm hoping things will turn around soon."

At A-Official Passport photos, manager Joe Harris has seen a decline in business, but it's not all because of the 9/11 crisis. "People are not flying, and those who are flying are going domestic. Travel is still way down. On 9/11, everybody stopped flying. It just came to a standstill. But the reason it stopped was because the postal system went into competition with us, taking passport photos. They do the photos for $15, which is more than we charge. But the post office doesn't send out customers for passport photos or have them look in the Yellow Pages anymore. Any advertising we do has no effect on passport-related services anymore since the post office went into business. They charge more than anyone else, but most people don't bother to shop. This new thing came down from San Francisco. I've checked around in various states, and it seems that California is the only one doing this at the post offices. They don't do it in Florida or New York. I'm 50 percent down from a year ago. People that deal in domestic travel can't be hurting that bad. It's tough to get a flight!"

Steve Moshki manages A-1 Rent-a-Car on Kettner Boulevard. "I'd say we've dropped about 30 to 35 percent of our business in the last year. Right after the attack, they shut down the airport for a week and there was no business. We haven't been able to make it up at all. Overall everything in travel business has dropped. We got hurt really bad."

Dave Davis owns Toby's Candle Company at the Sessions Shop in Old Town. He estimates that he relies on tourists for at least 75 percent of his business. "It has been down. We're down maybe about 10 percent from previous years, so we figure it has to do with 9/11. Right after the attack, it was pretty quiet around here, because people just weren't traveling or moving around. We still had business. It didn't drop off completely, but it was still pretty quiet. Of course, that time of the year, September, is when tourism goes down for us. As of yet, we still haven't been able to make up for the lost business. This year, this summer's been good. July and August and part of September are usually our three biggest months. We're hoping to recoup some of those losses. I think the travel-oriented businesses are probably suffering more than the gift-buying businesses. People are still looking for gifts."

Not everyone in the travel and tourism business is crying doom and gloom, however. Henry Parkins manages 5-Star Parking's Park, Shuttle and Fly on Pacific Highway at Sassafras Street, a large parking lot that offers shuttle service to and from Lindbergh Field. "Business dropped off at first after 9/11, but now we're right back; in fact, we're above last year's numbers. I think it's because of this particular location and how well it's doing, because I've heard that it's off in other areas. If you go back against last year's numbers, we're above it. I wasn't at this location when the 9/11 attack took place — I was downtown then, but I was with the company, and I remember looking at the numbers and going, 'Wow!' It was a drop off. I can't share the actual numbers, but I can tell you that we're above last year's numbers. I know that government garages had to go to new security, so anyone involved with that was fired immediately. It was no fault of our own; they were just kicked out for new security. We lost federal parking — and, of course, the Hall of Justice — immediately after 9/11, so that affected us. We lost both those accounts."

Richard Abdala manages Ampco System Parking's Aladdin Parking Complex at Laurel Street and Kettner Boulevard. "One year later, we find ourselves just a little bit behind where we were a year ago. We've almost fully recuperated. Right after the attack, our business went completely down, but everyone else's travel business went down too. Our garage didn't get any more customers on the day of the attack. All day long we were just busing people back from the airport. After that, there were just a few people coming back but not on planes. Then, for a few weeks after that, it was very, very slow. We're getting back on track now, but we're a little bit behind, maybe 5 percent. I imagine other tourist businesses in San Diego got hurt worse than we were, because we cater more to people leaving town rather than people coming into town."

One of the first (or last) restaurants many visitors to San Diego will eat at is Denny's at Pacific Highway and Hawthorn Street near the airport. Manager Michael Schoonover says that business is just fine. "Things are back to normal. We're actually up about 10 percent. In the summertime, probably 40 percent of our business is visitors, and after 9/11 it dropped! We went from doing $45,000 to $50,000 a week down to about $3000. That's a time of year when our business starts to drop off anyway, the end of September, but it lasted about three months, maybe a little longer. I guess everyone's just not afraid to travel anymore. A lot of people are out and about, taking vacations, but they're driving instead of flying."

Seaport Village's assortment of shops caters to tourists who are looking for unusual gifts or souvenirs to take home. Karen Carrillo, the manager of Crazy Shirts Seaport Village, estimates that over 95 percent of their business comes from out-of-town visitors. "Our business has increased tremendously. For approximately three months after 9/11, our sales dropped and we had to make adjustments in our stock levels and staffing. We were affected. It was pretty quiet. All of the retail businesses, especially downtown, were affected. There was a feeling that everyone wanted to be more patriotic. We had America shirts that we made, and everyone wanted to contribute and do something to show their support, whether wearing a shirt with a flag on it or hanging flags from the stores in the village. It was amazing what kind of business Alamo Flags did next door. A lot of the customers just wanted to talk about it. Still it was pretty much just dead. After two weeks of that, we had a tremendous amount of stock left over. But after six months, I think people wanted to get out and shop more. It was more like a relaxing thing. We started to see more people in the village — maybe not buying, but more foot traffic through the store. We've probably seen about an 8 percent increase in sales over where we projected we would be. We're meeting what we planned. Seaport Village is unique in that the stores are not your normal mall stores. A lot of tourists are looking for things that we can offer that a normal mall can't."

The Bristol is a boutique hotel located on First Avenue downtown. General manager Gary Petill says that business couldn't be better. "I think we've done very well. People within the 180- to 200-mile radius of San Diego, especially Orange County and L.A. and the desert communities, have given us a lot of support. People are really in the drive market, and it's the drive market that we do really well with. People are jumping in their cars, and they are taking last- minute -- and I mean lastminute, even during the week -- vacations. We'll have people walk in here on a Tuesday who want to spend four nights who just decided on Monday morning that they weren't going to work but were just going to take some time together. Maybe it's that people realize how important the human aspect of relationships are, and that we need to spend more time together and do things that are more 'outside the box.'

"The first couple of weeks after 9/11, without the air travel, we were as quiet as everybody else was. It was a standstill. I think in a lot of ways that the whole country was so paralyzed by all of this that it was just a reflection. I don't know if anyone even felt like working for the first few days. You just couldn't think about work. People's lives and what had happened, I think, were more important at the time than being busy and going to work. We're a little behind in our room sales, but just a little — maybe about 5 or 6 percent. We have certainly increased in our banquets, catering, and weddings. We have a gorgeous ballroom on the ninth floor. We've seen a lot of celebrations, and that's helped to make it up. We also get a great lunch crowd. It's mostly the driving market now. But those San Francisco people who will fly down and spend a weekend, we really haven't been murdered yet by them. We'll see what happens around September 11. Right now, we have 20 rooms sold for that date out of 102."

Rich Rethwish owns and operates the Sunshine Spot, a souvenir shop in Old Town that specializes in T-shirts, sunglasses, and low-priced novelties. "It still is hurting a little bit, but it's starting to come back. A lot more foreign travelers are coming in. The first few weeks were scary, because there was nobody around. You could walk out in the middle of the street and look up and down the street, and it was a ghost town down here. Right now, I'm actually a little up in income, because I wasn't doing that great last year. I'm probably up about 10 percent. But for a while, I just lived off my money in savings. The hotels seem to be complaining, but we got more local travelers — the folks from L.A. or Arizona — to make up for the loss of airport traffic."

Pamela Catania owns and operates Captain Fitch's Mercantile, a souvenir shop in Old Town that specializes in memorabilia and gifts. She thinks that San Diego is almost immune to drops in tourism. "For us in San Diego, it's been very upbeat. We count our blessings every day. Every day, we have to say, 'God bless the Brits!' because the whole time from the day 9/11 happened, they just kept on coming in busloads. They are like fearless people. When it happened, for the first two months we sold so much Americana from our store. They could not leave the store without saying, 'We're with you, America,' so they would do it by buying our patriotic towels and linens and other things. Overall, between their continuing to come and some local people — plus people from the bordering states; we've seen a lot of people just driving from Arizona, Nevada, and Utah — that's been real strong. About 50 percent of our business is tourist business. There was very little of a drop for us right after 9/11. Actually, our income is up from a year ago. I don't have the exact numbers, but it would be safe to say it's up at least 10 percent. Here in Old Town, we've all benefited. I know that other states, from what I've heard, are hurting for tourism business. It's interesting to talk to people from back East, because what we're hearing is that they see San Diego as a safe harbor. This is coming from people in New York, Ohio, Florida. They think that because of our military strength and presence here that it's safer. We hear it all the time. I personally went to Disney World in June. As an indication of how they're not doing, they were selling Cokes in Santa Claus bottles in June at one of their premiere resorts. They're still selling Christmas Cokes in June! As a retailer, that really spoke to me. My family didn't get it, but as soon as I saw them holding the bottles, I got it."

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My dad is one of the people you interviewed, Rich Rethwish. It's too bad he wasn't right about bouncing back. About a year or two after this article, he sold his business of 20 years and became unemployed, tried to make it as an artist for a few years, and eventually found himself working for someone else at a framing store. September 11 went deeper than we ever thought it could.

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