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State, travel agents feud over Net site

California travel agents fear the Web may take away business, especially if the state backs a site that books hotel reservations online.

California travel agents fear the Web may take away business, especially if the state backs a site that books hotel reservations online.

In particular, the California Coalition of Travel Organizations (CCTO) objected to the state giving contracts to reservation and ticketing vendors on the state's California Travel and Tourism site and then spending $2.5 million to promote the agencies.

And last month, they succeeded in pressuring the Division of Tourism, which sponsors the page, into temporarily pulling links to the services: popular local events ticketing agency Bay Area Seating Service Tickets, BASS, and a link to WorldRes, an online hotel booking agency.

The links, taken down February 3, are slated to go up again April 4.

The debate highlights the ongoing controversies emerging over public-private technology partnerships, especially in California.

The Division of Tourism argues in favor of the links, calling the service "essential electronic commerce."

The California Hotel and Motel Association also supports the site and the links, saying it will better represent small independent lodges.

But members of CCTO charge that the move is threatening small private businesses with unfair competition.

CCTO president Coranne Gibson said the state should have no part in private enterprise.

"They [WorldRes and BASS] have the lock on advertising," Gibson said. "The bottom line is the state shouldn't be involved."

A report to the State Assembly by the Task Force on Government Oversight sided with CCTO and took the state tourism board to task for promoting private businesses.

"Lodging reservation services appear to put the state, at least in certain circumstances, in direct competition with California travel agents," the report stated.

It also called the money spent by the Division of Tourism on promotion a "gift," and said that giving public funds to private enterprise for advertising could put the Division of Tourism in violation of the state constitution.

However, Division of Tourism spokesman Fred Sater defended his agency, saying it is legally in the clear.

He added that his division, which pulled the link to give travel agents and businesses time to discuss the issue, will make the final decision on whether to reinstate them--along with its overseeing agency, the state Trade and Commerce Agency--on April 4.

"It's at a point where a decision needs to be made," Sater said.

This particular issue is only one of many that have state bureaucrats duking it out with politicians and citizens.

For instance, the Board of Trustees for the California State University system has been considering a controversial plan, dubbed the California Education Technology Initiative, in which CSU would use technology provided by certain companies in exchange for those companies' ability to market to students and others.

In the case of the tourism site, the tourism division is hoping to use its Web site and the links in question to court California's $58 billion tourism industry. The state gets a small percentage of the revenue from hotels booked and tickets purchased. But more importantly, the state is hoping its site--and the easy access of the links--helps it to draw people to California.

State tourism director John Poimiroo argued that within five years, every state will be promoting tourism through Web sites and toll-free phone numbers.