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The Route 66 sign on the Santa Monica Pier is a popular destination for visitors. (photo by Daniel Archuleta)

PICO BLVD — Just over 6.7 million people visited Santa Monica in 2011 and pumped a record $1.39 billion into the local economy, a 20 percent increase in spending over 2009, according to a report released Wednesday by the Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The report was unveiled at the bureau’s third annual Travel and Tourism Summit, held in partnership with Beverly Hills, Los Angeles, Marina del Rey and West Hollywood. Organizers highlighted marketing efforts both nationally — Brand USA — and at the state level — Visit California — to drive international tourism and create much-needed jobs that they said could not be outsourced overseas.

“[This year] marks the 30th anniversary of [the] Santa Monica Convention & Visitors Bureau and today we are celebrating just how far our industry has come,” said Misti Kerns, president and CEO of the bureau, the taxpayer-funded nonprofit founded in 1982 to help promote Santa Monica as a premier travel destination.

“In 1983, Santa Monica was home to five full-service hotels, the average visitor spent $31 per day and 42 percent of visitors traveled car-free,” Kerns added. “Today, Santa Monica has 15 full-service hotels, the average visitor spends $234 per day and 75 percent of Santa Monica hotel visitors never use a car once they are here.”

That’s good news for the city by the sea as the increased spending helped create 1,700 new jobs in or around the local hospitality industry, a 17.5 percent increase over 2009, the last time the bureau tracked the impacts of tourism on the local economy.

City Hall also relies on hotel stays and sales tax to fund essential services like police and fire. Roughly $35 million went into City Hall’s General Fund last year thanks to the tax on hotel beds, according to the bureau, and estimated sales tax generated by visitor spending increased by 30 percent, totaling $8.6 million.

“Tourism is our mainstay,” said Mayor Richard Bloom, who believes Santa Monica should serve as a model for the state as elected leaders desperately try to find ways to raise revenues and entice companies to locate to the Golden State.

“[Tourism] dollars come back to our communities, our state,” Bloom said.

The tourism industry accounted for roughly $102 billion in spending in California, said Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California and vice chair of the board for Brand USA, the nation’s first coordinated effort to market to foreign tourists. Both groups have been airing commercials featuring celebrities like Rob Lowe and picturesque locales to entice vacationers.

“We bring you good news,” she said before launching a video of President Obama’s speech in January at Disney World in which he unveiled new initiatives to increase travel and tourism, including visa reform and increased promotion of national parks. “There’s an incredible, unprecedented alignment of the stars … in terms of how our industry is viewed. … We’re finally getting Americans to understand the importance of tourism.”

Nationally in 2010, tourism represented 2.7 percent of gross domestic product and 7.5 million jobs. The White House said in January that more than 1 million jobs could be created over the next decade if the U.S. increases its share of the international travel market. The U.S. share of spending by international travelers fell from 17 percent to 11 percent between 2000 and 2010, due to increased competition and changes in global development, as well as security measures imposed after Sept. 11, according to the White House.

“Tourism is the number one service we export,” Beteta said. “That means jobs.”

Beteta encouraged those in the hospitality industry to continue their efforts to market their destinations, particularly since travelers are becoming more savvy and cost conscious. With competition on the rise, it’s critical to reinvest.

“You can never go dark,” she said.

City officials said Santa Monica experienced a “break-out” year in 2011, something which can be attributed to a few factors, including a more robust economy and enhanced efforts by the state and the federal government to market Santa Monica and the U.S. as a place to vacation.

“We now have someone else carrying the message, putting that open sign up,” Kerns said.

It also doesn’t hurt that Santa Monica is home to a picturesque coastline and is situated near the Los Angeles International Airport and major tourist attractions such as Universal Studios, Disneyland and Hollywood. Surveys show that families prefer beach activities first, followed by theme parks, being out in nature and shopping.

Another contributing factor for the increase in sales tax revenue generated by visitor spending could be the half-cent sales tax increase approved by Santa Monica voters that went into effect halfway through 2011.

View of visitors

Californians once again comprised the majority of those visiting Santa Monica from inside the U.S., according to the bureau’s report, followed by folks from Texas, New York, Illinois and Nevada. For international tourists, Australia/New Zealand led the way, followed closely by Germany, Japan, Asia-Pacific Islands and the United Kingdom.

Of those visiting, 75 percent said they were here for pleasure. Overnight guests tended to stay an average of 3.9 days, down from 5.4 in 2009. Of those, 14 percent said Santa Monica was their destination of choice.

The average travel group size was 2.4 people. The average daily spending per person in Santa Monica was $144.79, up from $118,46 in 2009. The average median household income was $85,700 compared to $66,700 in 2009. Sixty-five percent were first-time visitors.

Tourists spent most of their money in 2011 on shopping (roughly $475 million), followed by meals (nearly $288 million), lodging ($285 million) and beverages ($151.7 million).

International visitors accounted for 46 percent of Santa Monica’s guests, followed by U.S. citizens from outside California (35 percent) and those living in California (19 percent).

The bureau’s goal is to attract more international tourists since they tend to stay longer, drive less and spend more. Kerns said the drop in international visitors (2 percent) compared to 2009 is of some concern and the bureau will continue to monitor the trend to see if it reverses. She believes changes to the visa program should help the numbers rebound.

kevinh@smdp.com