Beach: Visitors have been returning to Santa Monica over the past year but international tourism numbers are still lagging. SMDP Photo

School is out, so is the sun and soon too will be the swarms of tourists Santa Monicans remember from a pre-pandemic era, says President/CEO of Santa Monica Travel & Tourism Misti Kerns.

After two abysmal years of tourism numbers, statistics this summer are expected to impress. 

“If things continue the way that we are, we may end up having one of the best summers we’ve had and could even at some levels beat 2019,” said Kerns. 

This is certainly true when it comes to the day rates for hotel rooms, which are already up 24 percent from 2019 levels. While part of this is due to inflation, Kerns said it is also due to pent-up demand and people’s desire to splurge on vacation following two years of relatively little travel.

Another optimistic signal is hotel occupancy rates, which for the month of May were on average only around 2 percentage points lower than 2019 levels, according to Kerns. And, over Memorial Day weekend occupancy rates were actually higher than those in 2019. 

Despite these promising signs there is no guarantee that it will be all smooth sailing ahead for Santa Monica’s tourism industry even if the turbulent waters of the pandemic have, for the most part, subsided.

While many tourism indicators are up, full economic recovery is not expected until 2024 or late 2023 at the earliest. 

The biggest problem facing the local tourism industry is the persisting absence of international tourists.

Prior to the pandemic, international travelers made up roughly 50 percent of the visitors in Santa Monica. This plummeted to less than 10 percent during the pandemic, and Kerns predicts it will only rebound to around 25 percent this summer. 

This absence is particularly problematic as international tourists in general stay longer and spend more than their domestic counterparts. 

This means that even while visitor numbers are expected to be similar to 2019 levels, they will likely generate less revenue for local businesses and tax revenue for the city. And although weekend hotel occupancy rates look fantastic, the lack of long stays from international travelers is reflected in the midweek numbers. For example, on the Friday and Monday bookending Memorial Day weekend, hotel occupancy rates were notably below 2019 levels. 

“Certainly mid week we slow down and we didn’t have that before, we were pretty consistent in our occupancy and the demand was there,” said Kerns. 

Another concern about the ratio of domestic to international tourists is the anticipated uptick in traffic. While most international travelers do not rent cars, many domestic travelers choose to drive to Santa Monica, so Kerns warns that there may be an unusual and temporary uptick in summer traffic. 

“We need to be prepared, be aware, and be patient and be kind and realize that this is part of recovery and this isn’t recovery,” said Kerns. 

To try and increase the number of international visitors, SMTT is pushing hard on marketing campaigns in Canada and Mexico, where it is easier for tourists to travel from as compared to Europe or Asia. This is already yielding results as so far this year hotel bookings from Canada and Mexico are up 112 percent compared to the same time period in 2019.