Tourists flock to the beach north of the Santa Monica Pier Friday. The beach is one of the main reasons tourists flock to Santa Monica. (photo by Benjamin Brayfield)

CITYWIDE — Over 5.5 million people visit Santa Monica each year, but are they return customers?

It’s summer, and Santa Monica’s tourism industry — which supports 16,000 jobs and generates $1.2 billion for local businesses annually — is in full swing. The world famous Santa Monica Pier and the trendy Third Street Promenade are packed with people sporting fanny packs, Crocs and accents.

City Hall and the Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), are charged with keeping visitors coming back, as tourism is key to the economy. For some, their efforts are working.

“The weather is wonderful!” said Texan Marcia Morrison, who described her Santa Monica Farmers’ Market purchases in loving detail earlier this week. “We went for a walk on the beach to try to find the stars.”

Norwegian Rune Kemp, on the last stop of a Route 66 motorbike tour, said, “so far, so good!”

“We’ve just been drinking beer,” he added.

Others had mixed feelings.

“It’s the cleanest place I’ve ever seen,” said Trish Aisake, who traveled to Los Angeles County from Australia with her son. “Next time, I’m going to stay here.”

For this visit, Aisake chose to book a hotel room in Universal City, which made getting to Santa Monica more difficult than she would have liked.

“We had to take a taxi, which was expensive,” she said. “But on public transport it would have taken us an hour and a half with several changes.

“We just got here — we’re not familiar with the area.”

CVB representative Lara Chanley said issues such as the one Aisake raised have been or are being proactively addressed by the CVB and community members in order to maintain Santa Monica’s “brand promise” as “best at beach.”

“We want to deliver Santa Monica as a premier travel destination, and that means really gauging the needs of visitors in order to create the experience they’re looking for,” she said.

According to the CVB’s intercept survey data and three annual beach summits held so far, visitors to Santa Monica most enjoy the number of dining, shopping and cultural activities offered so close to beach, the atmosphere and environment around the city and the overall beach vibe.

Barbara Stinchfield, City Hall’s director of community and cultural services, said the natural beauty of the beach and the icons that reflect Southern California beach culture — such as Muscle Beach and the pier — make Santa Monica a desirable location within the Los Angeles area.

“The beach has been called a human theater — visitors can watch people swim, surf, play volleyball and bike,” she said.

“And we’re always striving to make it better,” she added. “We have capital improvement funding to replace public restrooms over the next few years, and we also want to reduce conflicts on the road-beach pathway system. We’ve gotten a lot of feedback about expanding the bike path north of the pier and adding a pedestrian path.”

Chanley declined to comment specifically on transportation or signage, but did say that the safety concerns of some tourists — such as those regarding water quality — are due to perception, not reality. Still, the police have added the beach as a regular beat as a response to these concerns.

But even the cops can’t control Mother Nature.

“We didn’t expect it to be so cold,” said Marina Kozlova, who is originally from Russia. She and her sister Anna did enjoy taking pictures on the promenade, though.

“I like how this place is so calm and peaceful,” she added. “We wouldn’t change it even if we could.”

Chanley said not all visitors are looking for an upscale resort experience. Instead, most tourists are just looking for a few added amenities to make going to the beach as a family that much easier. In particular, Chanley mentioned the beach butler service at Perry’s Cafe and the Annenberg Community Beach House’s sports equipment rentals. Stinchfield cited Santa Monica’s many parks, cultural venues and free concerts.

Nine-year-old Kaila Monro from Virginia wasn’t entirely impressed, however. Though she did enjoy going to the beach and getting almost knocked over by waves, she said Santa Monica needs even bigger waves, as well as more plants around.

“And the spas should be cheaper, but still good quality,” she added.

Chanley summed up why Santa Monica is a world-class tourist destination.

“When you visit Santa Monica, you do get everything L.A. has to offer in this compact 8.3 square miles — dining, shopping, celebrities,” she said. “But you don’t need to drive all over the L.A. freeway system to access it. That’s what makes Santa Monica special.”

Perhaps the best way to get all that Santa Monica has to offer is to be shown around by a local. Resident Gabriela Azerad provided this service for her parents.

“I know where to take them,” she said.

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