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Governor assures tourists San Diego is 'open for business'

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Two the state's most iconic figures -- Arnold Schwarzenegger and Shamu -- shared the stage Wednesday as the governor reminded visitors that San Diego's tourist attractions continue to operate despite last month's devastating wildfires.

Schwarzenegger addressed a crowd at SeaWorld's Shamu Stadium and paid a five-minute photo-op with the show's star before speaking to a media throng gathered inside the park.

"I want to let everyone in California and around the country and around the world know we're open for business," he said. "It's still the most beautiful place in the world. I love Southern California."

San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts, from left, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, San Diego North Convention & Visitors Bureau President & CEO Cami Mattson and San Diego East Visitors Bureau Executive Director Eric Lund. Photo: Duncan McIntosh/Office of Governor Schwarzenegger

Schwarzenegger acknowledged the damage the fires caused but didn't want potential tourists scared away by the graphic images seen on television.

"People assume that Southern California has burned down, that there's no more business and nothing's going on here," he said. "It's quite the contrary, because we were very lucky that they have these extraordinary firefighters here. They have the best firefighters in the world ... the most experienced firefighters, the toughest ones, the most courageous ones and they really saved a lot of property. It's really extraordinary the work they have done."

San Diego was declared a federal disaster area because of the region's worst wildfires since the 2003 Cedar Fire.

"I know that hundreds of homes were destroyed and thousands of acres burned," Schwarzenegger said. "And people lost many valuable personal possessions. My heart goes out to everyone who suffered from terrible losses."

In addressing the crowd at Shamu Stadium, the governor asked for help: "Spend as much of your time here because we need your dollars."

Tourism is the third-largest industry in San Diego County, trailing only manufacturing and the military, according to the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau (ConVis).

Direct visitor spending in San Diego County for fiscal year 2007 was $7.8 billion and the total economic impact was $17.7 billion. ConVis estimates those numbers will rise to $8.2 billion and $18 billion, respectively, next year.

The tourism industry also employs approximately 160,000 people.

ConVis spokesman Sal Giametta said Schwarzenegger's appearance Wednesday was significant.

"He commands tremendous attention, particularly from the media, nationally and internationally," he said. "To have the message delivered by this particular messenger is invaluable to us as an industry.

"(The) very dramatic and overwhelming images of wildfires, which created the perception the entire region was engulfed, are difficult to combat. The message coming from the governor is a tremendous boost to our efforts to get the word out that San Diego is open for business and the core of our industry was untouched ... unaffected by the wildfires."

Several top San Diego political figures stood beside Schwarzenegger, delivering a similar message.

"Not only is San Diego open for business, but the welcome mat is out," said San Diego County Supervisor Ron Roberts.

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders said tourists can actually help in the rebuilding process.

"Let there be no doubt our region welcomes you to San Diego now more than ever," he said. "The best way that you can help speed our recovery effort is to visit one of the most remarkable and beautiful regions of the country."

Giametta said it was too early to determine how much of an impact the fires have had on the tourism industry.

"Monday and Tuesday of fire week we certainly saw some dropoff and cancellations," he said. "It was very short-lived, and we saw it pick up right after that."

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