Check out downtown these days and it’s easy to see why “O-side” has created such a positive buzz: The city of about 175,000 residents boasts one of the longest wooden piers on the West Coast, a busy harbor and marina, the California Surf Museum, the California Welcome Center Oceanside, the Oceanside Museum of Art, Mission San Luis Rey and Camp Pendleton, the U.S. Marine Corps installation.
And it has the “Top Gun” house, the cozy 500-square-foot Victorian cottage built in 1887 and made famous in the 1986 film. The home moved in 2019 from its original spot on Pacific Street to the Mission Pacific Hotel, just a few hundred feet away.
But today’s upbeat atmosphere in Oceanside has not always been evident. In recent years, the city has faced its share of challenges, including a large homeless population, blight and crime. The COVID-19 pandemic also dealt the beachside burg some blows.
But despite some bumps in the sand, Oceanside has persevered, its leaders say, pushing forward to address its challenges and get back to the welcoming good vibes locals say are at its core.
“The dream of Oceanside’s forefathers was for it to be a beach visitor destination,” said Visit Oceanside CEO Leslee Gaul. “We are honoring what it was meant to be.”
Visit Oceanside is a nonprofit that works in partnership with tourism-related businesses on issues to generate visitor spending in the city.
Gaul said that there was a time in history when the city had a surplus of businesses that catered to its military population.
The Oceanside community has always valued the military and continues to do so, Gaul said, but many of those in the military and others in the community wanted more for the downtown area.
“We all want those nice restaurants,” Gaul said. “Military families were coming to the downtown area for services but went to places like Carlsbad for other things. The city has now become intentional about growing into more. The beach resorts are really a grass roots effort to bring the area to life. We’ve taken a long time to look at what is relevant to what visitors want today.”
Downtown Upgrades Pull Crowds
The resurgence of Oceanside’s downtown and beach area, bolstered by high-end dining spots like Matsu and Valle, specialty shops like HIGH Pie at the “Top Gun” house and the addition of two major new hotels in the past few years have all been a boon to the city, Gaul says.
“Restaurants kicked off a renaissance,” she said. “We had people coming and creating something special. Many of the restaurants are hanging onto history, reimagining themselves, and (considering) the culture that we have here.”
The Mission Pacific Hotel and The Seabird Resort are the city’s newest flagship hotels, spanning 700 feet of prime beachfront property adjacent to the pier. The city had been working on creating the additional lodging space for more than a decade.
But those hotels are not the only ones drawing crowds. SpringHill Suites by Marriott, which opened in 2014, also remains popular with visitors.
Stormi Posch, general manager at SpringHill Suites, said that Oceanside’s growth and development and the “energy of the community” has grown tremendously since she came to the hotel in 2016.
Posch said outside of two months of closure in 2020 because of COVID-19 mandates, the hotel’s business has been steady and sometimes “crazier in terms of occupancy” since.
“It feels like our weekends have never slowed down,” Posch said.
She said newcomers who hadn’t been to Oceanside previously have told her, “I didn’t know where Oceanside was before… or how cool it is here.”
Posch is a board member of Visit Oceanside, which held a summit in late May at the Brooks Theatre, at which it honored some of the local businesses and people making a difference in the city.
Survey Results Telling
At the event, the group shared an industry survey by Dean Runyan Associates that outlined ways Oceanside has been not only recovering but also prospering since the pandemic.
Oceanside depends on visitor spending, which benefits local businesses while tax revenues bolster the city’s general fund -- critical to paying for essential needs that benefit visitors and residents alike, services such as public safety, parks, street improvements and homeless outreach.
Among the survey’s findings: Dining and accommodations showed significant gains in travel spending, “which speaks to the exciting, continued growth in both of these sectors,” Gaul said.
“Increased revenues and spending despite fewer visitors show that our focus on smart tourism growth is working,” Gaul said.
Oceanside’s recovery has significantly outpaced statewide gains, Dean Runyan reported. While California’s overall travel industry increased 46 percent over 2020, Oceanside’s travel economy grew by 68 percent during the same period.
The survey showed that 2021 visitor spending and tax revenues surpassed even pre-pandemic levels.
According to the survey, all of Oceanside’s 2021 tourism economic metrics showed significant gains over 2020. Even more significant, many of the metrics also outperformed the record levels set in 2019, the benchmark for pre-Covid-19 travel.
And although Oceanside hosted less visitors in 2021 than in 2019, those who visited spent more and stayed longer, the report said.
Other survey highlights:
Travel spending in Oceanside was $507.5 million in 2021, up 68.1 percent from 2020 and a 7.3 percent increase from $419 million set in 2019.
Tax receipts generated by travel spending in Oceanside were reported to be $34.2 million, up 70.2 percent compared to 2020 and above the 2019 record of $26.8 million.
Travel spending in all categories was up with the restaurant industry registering the largest gain of $60.5 million over 2020, a 66.1 percent increase.
Accommodations travel spending was $54 million more than 2020.
Direct travel-generated employment gained approximately 470 jobs, a 15.8 percent increase over 2020.
Gaul said Oceanside is “bursting with creativity and innovation on all levels, and the Dean Runyan data shows that this is really resonating with visitors.”