Tourism: The Pier continues to be an attraction but it will still take years to recover from the pandemic. Courtesy photo

Santa Monica’s 2021 tourism statistics painted a bright and sunny picture when compared to 2020, but remained nowhere near as hot as the 2019 numbers.

Visitorship rose by 72.5 percent last year, from 2.03 million visitors in 2020 to 3.5 million in 2021, yet reflected less than half of the 8.41 million visitors in 2019. So while total spending rose by 65.3 percent from around $453 million in 2020 to $750 million in 2021, it paled in comparison to $1.89 billion in 2019. 

The main reason for this gap is the absence of international tourists, which reflected just 9 percent of visitors in 2021 compared to 51 percent of visitors in 2019.

However, Santa Monica’s leadership sees brighter days ahead and believes that as the rest of the world emerges from the pandemic, the city will once again be a magnet for international travelers. An optimistic sentiment was shared by numerous tourism experts at Santa Monica Travel and Tourism’s 13th annual tourism summit, which was aptly titled “Take on Tomorrow, Restoring a Vibrant and Thriving Santa Monica.”

“The research shows and the trends indicate that Santa Monica is headed in the right direction after two very challenging years trying to sustain and grow tourism in our city,” said City Manager David White. “We continue to monitor current events and look optimistically toward an increase in visitors and a rebound for local businesses.”

While international travel dropped precipitously during the pandemic, SMTT was able to recover some of the city’s visitor base through a robust staycation and drive market advertising campaign. Now their attention is shifting abroad to try and recapture the foreign market, with a particular focus on the UK, Australia, Canada and Mexico. 

“Bringing international travel back to Santa Monica is crucial to the overall recovery process in 2022 and beyond,” said Albin Gielicz, Board Chair, Santa Monica Travel & Tourism. “It’s also incumbent on Santa Monica as a destination to continue to target the drive market and recapture the meetings and events business to support Santa Monica tourism.”

Santa Monica’s tourism trends reflect that of the broader state industry, which was a sentiment expressed by Caroline Beteta, President and CEO of Visit California, a nonprofit organization in charge of tourism advertising and strategy statewide. 

“Our 2021 [statewide tourism] spending rose to 100 billion. That’s the good news. It rose about 46% from last year, but… we have a ways to go since 2019, which represented about $145 billion in spending.”

Beteta said that urban tourism centers, like Santa Monica, were particularly hard hit in the last two years due to their higher pre-pandemic ratio of international to domestic visitors and their near complete loss of business travelers. 

“There is a jagged recovery going on in California where our urban core, our gateway cities, because of this lag in business and international [travel], need an extra boost,” said Beteta. So we’re investing another layer through the urban core, almost $7 million, as a matter of fact, doing two content series.”

Both of these advertising series feature Santa Monica and are intended to bolster the marketing campaigns of SMTT. Misti Kerns, the President and CEO of SMTT, is also working on a taskforce with Visit California to help bring back the corporate meetings market to the city and state.

Visit California is also focused on magnifying its international campaigns in the coming year, with a focus on the UK, California and Mexico. In January the organization launched an $8 million marketing campaign in the UK designed to tap into pent up demand, Britons’ desire for sunshine and their millions of dollars in travel credits. 

“We expect that Santa Monica will continue to be one of the most popular destinations from a worldwide perspective. That means international visitors, they know the brand, they love the brand, they want to come here,” said market research and tourism consultant Lauren Schlau.

The anticipated return of international travelers will depend on US travel policies, other countries’ policies and the future of COVID.