Tourists watch as Santa Monica street performer Zhang Hong Cao creates artistic representations of their names at the Pier on Thursday afternoon. (Photo by Brandon Wise)
Tourists watch as Santa Monica street performer Zhang Hong Cao creates artistic representations of their names at the Pier on Thursday afternoon. (Photo by Brandon Wise)

PICO BLVD — Roughly 7.3 million visitors from outside Los Angeles County pumped $1.5 billion into the local economy in 2012, an almost 10 percent increase over the year prior, according to the Santa Monica Convention & Visitor’s Bureau.

That cash pumped $48.8 million directly into City Hall’s General Fund, which supports basic city services and amenities and supported 12,200 jobs that “cannot be exported,” officials repeated again and again.

The numbers were released at the fourth annual Travel & Tourism Summit, a convention of tourism industry leaders, city representatives and hotel interests who gathered to discuss the direction the bureau plans to take in the coming five years.

The strategy seemed straightforward — target the international travel market, which attracts visitors who stay longer, spend more and tend not to clog up the roadways with cars.

“We know we want to see more revenue coming in, not necessarily more people, that’s not what we’re all about,” said Misti Kerns, president and CEO of the bureau.

International visitors do bring in the bacon.

They made up 57 percent of Santa Monica’s visitors, and brought in more money, $962 million compared to $563 million from domestic travelers, according to bureau statistics.

Roughly 30 percent of those visitors hail from Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Ireland, countries in which no language barrier stands in the way of marketing.

The bureau isn’t content to stop there, however, announcing a new outpost in Brazil in an attempt to corner the burgeoning market, which is expected to become the number three market in tourism across the United States, overtaking Germany.

Right now, Brazil ranks as the 11th largest market in terms of visitors to Santa Monica, but a planned direct flight from Los Angeles International Airport to Sao Paulo could help bolster those numbers, as could a proposed visa waiver for Brazilians.

Efforts to attract international travelers includes local, state and even national marketing entities seeking to cash in on wealthy vacationers.

Brand USA, a national marketing effort created by Congress in 2010, and Visit California, a group that pushes the Golden State’s brand throughout the globe, both work with local, regional and national groups to snag international tourists.

These pieces of the “tourism ecosystem,” have to work together to inspire visitors to choose the United States over a growing number of developing countries that have been snagging the lion’s share of visitors in recent years.

Mexico, for instance, spends almost triple on marketing itself than California.

“We’re competing with countries,” said Caroline Beteta, president and CEO at Visit California.

California still manages to leverage its dollars to its maximum advantage.

In 2012, visitors brought $106.1 billion to California, which translated to 917,000 tourism jobs and $6.6 billion in state and local taxes, Beteta said.

Those numbers are only expected to improve, reaching $112 billion by the end of this year and $128.2 billion by 2015, with international travel expected to fuel much of that growth, Beteta said.

The rest of the country sees similar benefits, according Roger Dow, president and chief operating officer of the U.S. Travel Association, who testified before Congress on Tuesday.

Direct travel spending in the U.S. totaled $855 billion in 2012, which multiplied to $2 trillion in economic output and more than $129 billion in tax revenue, Dow said.

Travel also employed 7.7 million Americans, making it one of the top 10 employers in 48 states and Washington D.C.

“The travel industry was not spared by the recession, but since 2010, we have helped lead the economic recovery by restoring 85 percent of the jobs lost during the downturn compared to just 69 percent of the rest of the economy,” Dow said.

After international travelers choose the U.S., however, the competition heats up.

The bureau hopes to entice with Santa Monica’s beaches, walkability and the internationally-known Santa Monica Pier with its iconic Ferris wheel. That only works if the right message is reaching tourists’ ears, particularly with the pier undergoing major repairs and a complete replacement of the bridge that connects it to land.

Visitors aren’t the only ones that need to learn about construction projects, Kerns said.

“People said to me there are so many hotels being built right now, and I said, ‘Where?'” Kerns told the audience.

There are no hotels under construction, although there are 2,000 housing units in the works as well as two school campuses, she said.

New hotels are on the horizon. One has been approved at 710 Wilshire Blvd. and seven more are in the planning pipeline. If approved, the hotels together would constitute 779 new hotel rooms and $20 million in new tax revenues for City Hall from room-stay taxes alone.

Hotel spending would go up a total of $168 million, and the economic impact would look more like $218 million, Kerns said.

“I think the unfortunate part, and all of us are ambassadors in this room, is that we need to get the facts out there,” she said. “We need to be able to talk about what is happening, and more importantly, what isn’t happening yet.”

If some residents get their way, several hotels won’t happen at all, at least not as planned.

A community meeting focused on the development of Downtown Santa Monica drew hundreds of angry residents who spoke against what city planners have called “opportunity sites,” a set of eight locations where they propose that developers will be able to build taller, denser buildings than allowed under code in exchange for community benefits.

At least three of those sites have applications proposing hotels, specifically the Fairmont Miramar; a luxury hotel designed by Santa Monica resident and famed architect Frank Gehry; and the Wyndham, formerly Holiday Inn, on Colorado Avenue.

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