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International Flights Soar, Defy National Trends

17 million: International visitors to the state

.58 million: Visitors from India and the Middle East

1.1 million: Visitors from China

7.8 million: Visitors from Mexico

13 percent: Portion of international visitors on business trips

Sources: U.S. Commerce Department, Visit California, CIC Research

Countries with the highest number of overnight visitors to the local region:

Canada: 443,000

Mexico: 338,000

United Kingdom: 96,000

China: 83,000

Australia/New Zealand: 71,000

Germany: 71,000

Japan: 67,000

Total International: 5.7 million

Source: San Diego Tourism Authority

It appears the forces dragging down some elements of the local tourism sector are not yet having an impact on international travel to and from San Diego.

Newly started direct air services by Condor Airlines and Edelweiss Air – connecting San Diego with Germany and Switzerland, respectively – are expected to boost the region’s already growing prospects for attracting new international visitors.

Those prospects were further bolstered by German carrier Lufthansa Group’s announcement that it will begin new local service to Frankfurt in summer 2018.

Less certain going forward are the local effects that might result from other issues impacting global tourism, including the strength of the U.S. dollar; a travel ban proposed by President Donald Trump but currently blocked in the courts; and federal crackdowns affecting cross-border immigration between the U.S. and Mexico.

Even before the start of new local flights by Condor Airlines to Frankfurt on May 1 and Edelweiss Air to Zurich on June 9, local international air passenger traffic was on the rise.

Officials at San Diego International Airport said international traffic during the month of May rose nearly 22 percent from a year ago, and the passenger count for the first five months of 2017 was up nearly 7 percent.

While May passenger numbers were not available at press time, officials previously reported that the April count for international travelers topped 68,000 (up 20 percent), and the total for the first four months was more than 231,000 (up 2.6 percent).

“As to why we’ve been adding passengers, we have been aggressively adding flights to new destinations,” said Jonathan Heller, spokesman for San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, which oversees San Diego International.

Cabo, Canada Still Strong

Tourism officials have previously reported that Mexico and Canada are the biggest originators of international visitors to the San Diego region, and recent flight additions also reflect this. Heller noted that at least part of overall increases at San Diego International can be attributed to Southwest Airlines’ recent addition of flights to Cabo in Mexico, Spirit Airlines’ re-introduction of Cabo service, and “significant increases” in passenger counts being seen by Air Canada and WestJet for their local services to Canada.

Airport and airline officials have previously estimated that the new Condor and Edelweiss seasonal services will bring a total of about 30,000 new visitors to the region annually. In response to rising international traffic, including previously added services to London by British Airways and to Tokyo by Japan Airlines, Heller said the airport is ahead of schedule on construction of a new $229 million federal inspection station, set to open next summer at Terminal 2.

However, airport officials have not assessed what if any impact on international traffic is being seen from recent national headlines, including talk of travel bans and immigration restrictions. “As to why specific passengers are coming here or not coming here, you would have to ask them,” Heller said.

Day Visits Appear Down

The travel analysis firm Foursquare, whose offerings include software that tracks foot traffic globally at business venues such as hotels, stores and convention centers, recently reported that California’s top three tourist destination cities – Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego – collectively saw traffic decline 3.6 percent from a year ago between the last quarter of 2016 and the first quarter of 2017. For San Diego alone, the decline in leisure foot traffic was 9.9 percent.

The report does not provide specific traffic data or theories to explain the trends. Local observers have previously noted that a large contingent of San Diego’s tourism traffic consists of day visitors from Mexico, many of them driving rather than flying in.

Those day visits have declined in part due to a weakening of Mexico’s peso during the past two years, though specific current visitor numbers were not available. While there has been talk from the Trump administration about erecting a new wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, potentially restricting cross-border travel, the project has so far not come to pass, though federal agencies have been stepping up enforcement in relation to deportation of illegal immigrants.

A March report by the UCLA Anderson Forecast predicted that the proposed travel ban – impacting visitors from six primarily Muslim Middle Eastern and African countries but currently blocked by the courts – could have significant impact on international tourism in California.

Outside of the ban, impacts are likely to come from shifts in currency exchange rates, restrictions on the issuing of international travel visas, and changing rules of engagement for deportations of undocumented immigrants.

Other Factors in Play

“Tourism is likely to take a double-whammy hit due to a less friendly environment for foreign nationals coming to the U.S., and from the higher value of the dollar making the U.S. more expensive for foreign tourists and therefore less attractive,” said UCLA Anderson Senior Economist Jerry Nickelsburg. “We don’t know how much the friendliness of the U.S. in the eyes of foreigners will affect their travel plans.”

None of the countries listed on the proposed travel ban – Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – are currently accessible via direct services from San Diego, though the region does get visitors from those countries who fly into Los Angeles and San Francisco for their California visits.

Just the talk about a travel ban has created some impact. Nickelsburg noted that after the ban was announced in late January, searches on various travel booking websites reportedly dropped 6 percent to 17 percent from before the ban was issued.

“This does not mean they won’t come back,” the economist said. “However, the promise of new travel restrictions, including a higher threshold for obtaining visas, suggest a decline is in the offing.”

While California could become a more attractive destination for some domestic tourists, he said the state is now competing with other global stops, such as Fiji and Japan, where the strength of the dollar makes visits more attractive, thanks to increased buying power. Other observers have noted the same dynamic is now in place for many European destinations attracting U.S. travelers.

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