The COVID-19 pandemic and much of its aftermath kept travelers to San Diego at bay – and not near San Diego Bay – causing a downswing in economic progress to the region.
But San Diego tourism – which supports more than 200,000 jobs in myriad industries and brings billions of dollars in business to the city – is back on track, local leaders say.
Visitors continue to make their way to San Diego, according to the nonprofit San Diego Tourism Authority, which seeks to drive travelers to the region for economic benefits.
The SDTA reported this month that in fiscal year 2023, San Diego welcomed about 30.5 million visitors who contributed a record $14.28 billion in direct spending locally – a significant $1 billion increase compared to the previous fiscal year – and higher than before the pandemic, when just 14.3 million people visited the area.
In 2019, San Diego drew 35.8 million visitors with an economic impact of $11.6 billion. Both 2021 (23.8 million visitors) and 2022 (28.8 million) included a great deal of revenge travel – people making up for lost time not traveling anywhere because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Our visitor spending is actually higher this year than it was in 2019, because we have more people staying longer in San Diego,” said SDTA COO Kerri Kapich. “So there might be less people, but those who come in stay more than a day or two days – they’re staying on average four days. And then the other thing is everybody has seen increased spending across the board because everything is up in terms of prices with inflation.
“So even though we’ve had less visitors, we’ve had more spending in the market, which is good for the San Diego community. It’s good for all the businesses that make up San Diego tourism,” she continued. “From a business perspective, there are over 9,000 businesses that are part of the tourism economy, so that’s good news for people who are tourism businesses here.”
Hospitality, Events Industries Feeling the Love
The SDTA reports that with visitors steadily coming to the San Diego region, local hotels in FY 2023 also achieved higher occupancy rates countywide at an average of 73.7%, an increase of 5% year-over-year. These hotel stays helped generate more than $418 million in transient occupancy tax revenue for local municipalities.
Bartell Hotels, one of San Diego’s largest and oldest independent hotel owner-operators, with eight hotels totaling 1,800 hotel rooms, three marinas and the iconic Humphrey’s Concerts by the Bay entertainment venue, is seeing a major uptick in visitors.
Lydia Bartell is vice president of Bartell Hotels – Holiday Inn Bayside, Hilton Harbor Island, Humphreys Half Moon Inn, Best Western PLUS Island Palms & Marina, The Dana on Mission Bay, Sheraton La Jolla, Pacific Terrace Hotel and Days Inn Hotel Circle.
She said that 2023 has been “a phenomenal year” for tourism in San Diego and for the Bartell Hotels portfolio.
“This year has bested the 2022 revenue record, which generated 15% more revenue than the previous high watermark in 2019,” Bartell said. “2022 was the year of leisure travel, with unprecedented demand for personal vacations, so our leisure-focused hotels were blazing the trail last year. Meanwhile, groups gradually gained confidence in meeting again as the pandemic subsided, and the convenience of Zoom impacted business travel. 2023 has been the year of group travel, as we have seen more groups and larger groups filling meeting spaces and the San Diego Convention Center. Similarly, we have seen a rebound in business travel, as Zoom has not replaced the value of face-to-face meetings.”
Bartell said the company is also heartened that interest in hospitality jobs, which were impacted greatly during the pandemic and since, has also rebounded.
“Bartell Hotels has almost 1,000 team members, which is very comparable to our pre-pandemic staffing levels,” she said. “It feels great to have well-staffed hotels, which enables us to deliver fantastic experiences to our guests.”
Pacific Events Productions, also known as PEP Creative, an event production company in business for more than 30 years, has also reported strong growth in the post-pandemic aftermath.
Since 1990, PEP has provided florals, linens, props, lighting, staging, furniture, and entertainment needs, producing more than 35,000 events – from corporate and association soirees to galas, grand openings, sporting events and parties of all sorts – and has employed more than 3,500 special event professionals.
PEP Creative CEO George Duff said that the need for his company’s offerings – from rentals and design needs to handling full productions – show a definite return of events to San Diego.
“Since the pandemic, we had a 160% growth in 2021 with only seven months of business, 230% growth in 2022, and we have returned to 2019 levels of volume by 2023,” Duff said, “with 2024 looking like another growth year.”
Major events are also back, Kapich said, noting the Nov. 8-12 San Diego Bay Wine and Food Festival and coming events including a rodeo at Petco Park in January, the Del Mar Wine and Food Festival in October and two music festivals next year – Wonderfront and Kaaboo.
Statewide Trend in Tourism Recovery
State tourism is also trending up, says nonprofit organization Visit California.
Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California, spoke at SDTA’s 69th Annual Meeting on Nov. 9 at SeaWorld San Diego, telling the more than 600 attendees that the state’s tourism recovery efforts and its sustainability initiatives are helping California head to full recovery in the tourism sector in 2024, with even more acceleration in 2025.
“As we look ahead to 2024, San Diego’s accomplishments from 2023 are instrumental in California’s overall tourism success and help pave the way for an even brighter future,” Beteta said.
San Diego Tourism Authority
PRESIDENT AND CEO: Julie Coker
HEADQUARTERS: San Diego
BUSINESS: Nonprofit mutual benefit corporation with nearly 1,000 members promoting San Diego
BUDGET: $27M (generated through public sources [San Diego Tourism Marketing District] and grants as well as membership dues and other sources of income, including events)
SOCIAL IMPACT: SDTA’s Tourism Accelerator program seeks to promote diversity, equity and inclusion in the tourism industry
NOTABLE: SDTA’s mission is to drive visitor demand to economically benefit the San Diego region with a vision of leading San Diego to become the most desirable destination