After several down years, tourism in Los Angeles County is on the rebound.
But the recovery from the COVID-19 lull has been uneven to this point, officials say — with far fewer international visitors making their way to L.A. than during the last pre-pandemic year.
“Domestic leisure travel has really led the recovery process” and has fully recovered after tourism was upended by the pandemic, said Adam Burke, president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board.
However, international tourism is still down nearly a third from 2019. “We have a significant amount of work to do to drive recovery internationally,” Burke said.
That slower recovery comes at a cost.
“Overseas visitors are by far our most valuable guests,” Burke said, adding that it takes nearly three domestic travelers to spend as much as the typical guest from another country, according to his organization’s figures.
He blamed a slow process that often makes prospective international travelers wait more than a year for a visa — a delay he characterized as a “significant deterrent.”
Domestically, widespread issues in the air travel industry have “wreaked havoc on travel schedules” and could be damping domestic tourism to Los Angeles, Burke said.
Meetings and conventions — which in 2019 brought in $24 billion, compared with the $31 billion racked up from leisure visitation — have also struggled to rebound. So far this year, they’re tracking at only 81% of their 2019 level.
The tourism industry employs nearly 560,000 people, making it one of the county’s top five employers, according to Burke.
From 2020 through 2022, nearly 200,000 Angelenos employed in tourism were out of work and businesses catering to tourists lost almost $43 billion in sales as pandemic precautions restricted travel, he said.
Now, his organization wants to remind people “just how indispensable tourism is to our local community.”
To that end, the tourism and convention board is purchasing advertisements on traditional broadcast channels in Canada and Mexico for the first time, hoping to attract additional visitors from those countries.
The organization plans to spend some $6.5 million on ads in other major American cities as well.
But not everyone may be fully on board with the push to bring more visitors to L.A. Residents may worry that a crush of tourists could exacerbate the city’s already chronic traffic and pollution problems.
And amid a prolonged hotel workers’ strike, drawing more people to the city would probably involve more guests having to choose whether to cross picket lines.
Burke countered that his organization is committed to “making sure that tourism is done sustainably.” He touted investments in sustainable fuels for airlines and encouraged visitors to “travel car-free in L.A.”
Additionally, he said the tourism and convention board is pushing guests to visit all kinds of neighborhoods, not just the heavily trafficked locations. More tourists in places like South L.A., he said, would lead to a “more equitable distribution of those economic benefits.”
Roughly two-thirds of the 1,300 hotels in L.A. County have fewer than 300 rooms, he said, so there are plenty of options for visitors to choose from.
“While we’re still very optimistic that while we have a ways to go, we can accelerate the pace of recovery,” Burke said.