When the US closed its doors to most international travel in 2020, Santa Monica lost the $1.17 billion in annual spending that international tourists were driving, but with borders back open the tourism industry and local economy are poised for a boost.
While international travelers are expected to trickle, not flood, back into town, CEO of Santa Monica Travel and Tourism Misti Kerns is optimistic that the market will boom again soon and start surpassing pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
“I do think it’ll be gradual… airlines have to have capacity, it’s not just getting on a plane and coming; there’s different steps that have to be taken,” said Kerns. “But I think that we certainly see international travel coming back relatively quickly, I mean there’s certainly a pent up demand.”
While domestic travelers are an important source of local revenue and helped hotels and hospitality businesses stay afloat over the past 20 months, international travelers both stay longer and spend more.
In 2019, 4.3 million international tourists came to Santa Monica, making up 51 percent of all visitors and 62 percent of overall visitor spending.
The loss of this market coupled with the economic consequences of the pandemic saw visitor spending decline by 76 percent in 2020. In conjunction, hotel tax revenue dropped by 67.9 percent, representing a $19 million loss to the City and tourism jobs dropped by 74 percent, dwindling down to about 3,000.
The tourism sector is already moving in a positive direction, with a moderately busy summer season of domestic visitors having boosted hotel revenue and occupancy numbers continuing to tick-up.
“Currently, we’re anywhere from 65 to 70 percent in occupancy and midweek is a little bit tougher right now, compared to 85 percent pretty much over all with no dips midweek in 2019,” said Kerns. “We’re seeing a much stronger demand on weekends and that’s due to domestic leisure travelers.”
As international tourists return these numbers will only continue to improve. Kerns expects to see a light increase in international tourists through the holiday season and beginning of 2021, but predicts that this will significantly pick-up shortly thereafter.
“We need to get past the first quarter of this next year,” said Kerns. “February should be, pardon the pun, but a big kick off with the Super Bowl coming there are some activities happening in Santa Monica that will just bring that vibrance back to our community that in many ways we’ve lost in the last few months.”
For residents wondering when they will again hear a rich mix of languages while walking around town, Kerns says within the coming months.
“I think people are looking forward to that; it does provide great diversity to Santa Monica, having all of those international travelers come and visit,” said Kerns.
While SMTT shifted its focus to domestic and staycation travel marketing over the past year, it is now transitioning back to more global marketing campaigns. One of the key target areas is the United Kingdom, as England was the top feeder market for domestic travel in 2019.
Residents can expect to see a return of Brits alongside Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Germans and French, as these are key target regions for marketing and traditionally large sources of visitors. Asian tourists, however, may be slower to return.
“China, as an example, I don’t think we’ll see that market coming back as fast as some of the other markets, and many countries are offering incentives for their residents to stay within their countries and vacation,” said Kerns. “Everybody needs to recover.”
In the short-term, there will likely continue to be a greater than usual number of domestic visitors given the significant advertising push that SMTT has directed towards this market. However, as other countries reopen their borders and resume marketing internationally, that number can be expected to drop.
“Could we have a very busy summer this year? Yeah, we could. You know, you can’t just turn that faucet off that you’ve been marketing to,” said Kerns. “But again, as other destinations start marketing and other countries start marketing to US citizens, I do think we’ll see some of that exchange.”