San Diego’s all-important tourism sector continues to bounce back, local officials say, with Spring Break 2022 fueling a healthy uptick in visitor spending across the city and county.
Popular area tourist attractions like SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo, Balboa Park and Legoland are again drawing crowds while in downtown San Diego, convention center attendance is on the upswing as well.
Julie Coker, president and CEO of the San Diego Tourism Authority, said the region is making a strong recovery since the pandemic upended virtually all facets of travel in early 2020.
“We are very excited about what we’re seeing,” Coker said. “As we’re seeing it right now, San Diego’s leisure travel is back to pre-pandemic levels.”
Nonetheless, area tourism officials are still stressing the need for vigilance amid the ongoing pandemic.
“We tout the fact that we are a destination that also has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country,” Coker said.
San Diego County Health and Human Services reported that as of March 23, 86.5 percent of San Diego County residents had received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
Dulce Madrid, manager of Island Fashion, a clothing and souvenir shop at Seaport Village, said her store’s hours were shortened during Covid-19 – “but we are back to regular hours now.”
Madrid said business at Seaport Village really dropped off during COVID but has rebounded strongly, especially over the past month.
“We’ve been busy, thank God, with families and visitors from out of the area,” Madrid said.
Coker said college spring breakers have also returned in force to area beaches in 2022. “When we take a look at March and April, we typically have seen a rise, and we expect this year to be the same.”
Shawn Dixon, chief operating officer at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, said this week that the zoo had “an extremely favorable March in comparison to the same period in previous years.”
“Our community and visitors are supporting us with higher volumes than we have experienced in the recent past,” Dixon added. “San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance has always relied on local, regional and global tourism, as well as our community, to provide the financial support needed to care for wildlife, maintain both parks and engage in conservation work both locally and globally. We are so grateful for this support.”
Hotel Room Demand Rising
In downtown San Diego, convention center business is once gaining ground after weathering a flurry of cancellations in January when the Omicron variant kept visitors away and forced many conventions to hold meetings virtually. “We’re anticipating that as each month goes along, March, April and May, we’re going to continue to see the attendance at the Convention Center increase,” Coker said.
‘Extremely Positive’ Outlook
Alan Reay, president of the Atlas Hospitality Group, said he was “extremely positive” in terms of the travel outlook for San Diego.
Reay said that San Diego “has not only been resilient, but actually also very strong.”
Reay said that once hotels started opening back up after the most challenging times during the pandemic, a tremendous amount of business has returned to what he said are “drive-to” markets, including Coronado and La Jolla locally as well as Santa Monica and other beach locales, and desert spots like Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage.
Reay said that in 2021, a number of the drive-to markets were seeing record revenues and that a cool-off was anticipated. But in 2022, “it’s the complete opposite,” he said, particularly in San Diego.
“Downtown convention and commercial traffic have been up, especially when you compare San Diego to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Silicon Valley,” Reay said. “Downtown San Diego has survived better than all the other markets. I think because of the beautiful climate in San Diego and fact that when the local [hotels in] La Jolla, Coronado and Pacific Beach were sold out or the rates were too high, people gravitated toward the downtown market, where it was still close enough that they can get to the beach.”
“Downtown Los Angeles, San Francisco and Silicon Valley don’t have that, and Anaheim’s convention area really doesn’t either,” he added.
Labor Shortage Persists
Erika DiProfio, vice president of marketing for SeaWorld, said that the theme park industry is anticipating a strong spring and summer. But the pandemic has created a labor shortage, forcing parks to work overtime to find enough employees, she added.
DiProfio said COVID-19 isn’t going away and opined that “we all have to figure out how to live with it.”
Because SeaWorld is an accredited zoo, it was able to reopen quickly during the early months of the pandemic, offering a place for people “to come and spend the day with their families when they couldn’t do much else,” DiProfio said.
She said SeaWorld annual pass members have continued to renew in “some of the largest numbers in recent memory” – and that visitor numbers at the company’s parks are increasing.
“Part of that is we are an iconic destination in San Diego,” DiProfio said. “And also, there is a longing for nostalgic comfort activities and family experiences where what is old is new again.”
She also said that Sesame Place in Chula Vista, which opened in late March and is under SeaWorld’s umbrella, has brought hundreds of jobs to the South Bay and is expected to “drive a ton of tourism to the area,” including drawing families from Mexico.
At the Tourism Authority, Coker said that with the San Diego/Mexico borders opening in November 2021, there has been some demand returning for international travel.
“Mexico is our No. 1 market and we are definitely starting to see more visitors come from Mexico, but we are also seeing an increase in visitation that is coming internationally,” she said.
Coker doesn’t anticipate international visitation being back to pre-COVID levels until 2024, citing combinations of restrictions for quarantining as well as the recent geopolitical unrest involving Russia and Ukraine.
Before COVID, the travel and tourism industry employed more than 200,000 people locally, according to Coker. But at the peak of the pandemic, the industry had lost about 70,000 jobs. Now that number has bounced back to a little more than 175,000, she said.
“When we talk about hotels, and the (money) that is generated from the hotel tax, that serves the purpose of supporting police and fire and infrastructure, and emptying our garbage,” Coker said.
Coker called San Diego “a destination made up of small businesses,” and said that 70 percent of visitors’ spending is done in those small businesses.
“Our visitors come out of the hotels and they are putting money into the economy so they’re eating at our restaurants, they’re shopping at these small businesses that we have,” Coker said. “Visitors are going into those stores, and they are spending money, and hopefully that allows that owner to be able to expand their business or support their families.”
San Diego Tourism Authority
PRESIDENT/CEO: Julie Coker
HEADQUARTERS: Downtown San Diego
CONTACT: (619) 557-2838
NOTABLE: San Diego is among the top 10 meeting and visitor destinations in the nation.