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California's $54 billion tourism industry, victimized by natural and man-made disasters, needs a good marketing campaign.

Although the federal government turned down the state's request for $15 million to start a damage control ad campaign (AA, April 11), the state isn't giving up on marketing as the answer to declining numbers of tourists.

The cash-strapped state will look to the tourism industry to fund future efforts. The California Legislature is currently considering a marketing order, similar to the California Raisin Advisory Board, that would raise $25 million from the travel industry through self-assessments. Any marketing programs would begin in late 1995 or 1996.

The money raised through that measure, combined with the state's $7.5 million tourism budget, would move California to first from 16th in tourism-related spending, more than current leader Hawaii's $30 million outlay.

"Tourism is California's largest industry, and tourism is driven by marketing," said John Poimiroo, director of tourism within the state's Trade & Commerce Agency. "You've got to advertise."

Of particular concern is the loss of Japanese tourists. That country's recession may be responsible for fewer Japanese travelers to the U.S. overall-arrivals totaled 3.5 million last year, down 3% from 1992. But California's traditionally high share of tourists from Japan to the U.S. is plummeting.

While still the No. 1 continental U.S. destination for Japanese travelers, with more than 782,000 last year, California's share of Japanese tourists to the U.S. dropped to 21.5% in '92 from 44.4% in '87, Mr. Poimiroo said.

And the carjacking deaths of two Japanese film students earlier this year in San Pedro, just outside Los Angeles, further heightened concern over crime. More than 50,000 Japanese study in the U.S.

In denying the state's $15 million request, the Clinton administration did approve a $3 million grant for a damage control ad campaign for earthquake-struck Los Angeles. But the money came too late to stimulate international travel and will be spent only in 10 Western markets.

"Seventy percent of international summer travelers have already made their decisions," said George Kirkland, president of the Los Angeles Convention & Visitors Bureau. "That's why we're concentrating on near-in markets."

But he added: "The growth markets will be outside the U.S."

Julie Meier Wright, state secretary with the Trade & Commerce Agency, defended the effectiveness of the state's "counterbalancing" ad campaign. She noted that California's first ever national campaign, begun just one month after the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake, drew an impressive 65,000 calls following its three-week flight. That compares to 185,000 calls for all of 1992.

Hobbled by a small media budget, the campaign from J. Walter Thompson USA, San Francisco, will continue through June in just nine Western markets.

"At that level," Ms. Wright said, "we cannot turn around the decline of tourism to California."

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