The Santa Monica Elks and its Santa Monica Emblem Club honored us last week during an impressive dinner meeting at their home on Pico Boulevard.

Other newspaper folks honored with community service awards were Carolyn Sackariason, Santa Monica Daily Press editor and co-owner, Glenn Esterly, Blue Pacific editor, and Megan Roi, California Crusader publisher and editor.

Elk Ray Beers was keynoter for the evening and offered a long list of programs and community service contributions made by the Elks Club each year.

Beers especially emphasized that the Elks is a patriotic group, which might explain the dashing stars and stripes tie worn by event chair and Westchester resident Curt Curtiss.

LA INC. TOP EXEC SPEAKS — The former Los Angeles Visitors and Convention Bureau is now LA Inc. and the group’s top executive, Mark Liberman, was keynoter at a membership breakfast of the Westchester/LAX-Marina del Rey Chamber of Commerce in the Radisson Hotel at LAX Tuesday morning.

Liberman came loaded down with statistics to support his claim that tourism is the second largest industry in Los Angeles.

But he admitted that “the last few years of our business have been very, very difficult, but that is changing.”

Liberman credited the slowdown in L.A. tourism to the sluggish national economy, the impact of international terrorism and SARS.

There has been a real slowdown in business travel in recent years.

In 2003, there were 22 million visitors, bringing some $11 billion to the LA region, he said.

Tourism employs 250,000 in Los Angeles.

But in recent years, tourism has shifted from international to domestic tourism as the number of foreign visitors here fell for three consecutive years.

That creates a multiplier effect because international visitors not only stay here longer, they spend more while they are here.

Mexico sends us the most visitors, some 1.4 million last year, with visitors from Japan and Canada trailing.

The downturn in Japanese visitors to Los Angeles has been particularly devasting to the local economy. The number of Japanese visitors peaked at 848,000 in 1997. Last year only 320,000 visitors came to LA from Japan.

The number of Japanese coming here is increasing, “but not fast enough,” Liberman said.

Passenger traffic at Los Angeles International Airport is “coming back” — up 11.5 percent between January and July from last year.

Hotel occupancy is up locally, too, with the Marina del Rey-Santa Monica area having the highest hotel occupancy in Los Angeles, according to Liberman.

So far, so good with Liberman’s presentation.

Then the top LA Inc. guy drifted off into discussing the “downtown LA” position on expanding LAX.

He tossed out the same political chatter about how if we don’t keep adding more and more improvements to LAX, everyone will go somewhere else.

Oh, if only.

Fourteen cities have added international traffic, he warned.

So? Bet those of you who have struggled to get into and out of LAX in recent months didn’t notice the impact of those 14 other cities adding international traffic.

Liberman says LAX is ranked 42 among 48 airports.

The top LA tourism guy is a real booster for the LAX master plan, designed to add another 20 million or so annual passengers to the already suffering souls who use the local airport.

Liberman didn’t discuss the reports that the LAX Master Plan Alternative D — being promoted by Mayor Hahn — has now had its appearance before the full Los Angeles City Council delayed until at least December.

We suspect as the calendar runs out, some council members may wisely be suggesting that the City Council wait until at least the March mayoral primary to see whether Mr. Hahn is even going to be mayor after July 1st before the City Council makes a big decision on the present LAX master plan proposal.

And should Hahn not reach the runoff or be defeated in the June runoff?

Look for a new mayor to toss out the current LAX plan and start over with still another new LAX master plan.

We missed the logic of the benefits of cramming another 20 million annual passengers — projected by the LAX master plan promoted by Liberman — into an airport that already ranks 42nd among 48.

We came away from Liberman’s talk wondering just how awful those airports ranked 43-48 must be.