This article was written by Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California.
With the Sept. 20 announcement that international travel will resume in November, California’s travel industry has renewed optimism for an accelerated recovery. The new standards will allow vaccinated travelers from Europe, the United Kingdom and select other countries to enter the United States without quarantine or other restrictions.
The long-awaited update from the Biden administration generated an immediate surge in travel planning, inundating European airlines and travel booking sites. Expedia Group reported a spike in interest in San Francisco trips, more than doubling search traffic. British Airways reported a 700% increase in searches for trips to Los Angeles, and Skyscanner saw a 54% increase in visits from consumers looking to visit the United States.
The return of international travel is one of the most significant factors to help usher in California’s travel economy recovery. Before the pandemic, international travel accounted for 6% of visitors to the state, but over 17% of travel spending. Traditionally, international travelers tend to stay longer, spend more and often visit during slower shoulder seasons.
The tourism industry was one of the hardest hit during the pandemic. Full recovery to pre-COVID levels is currently forecast for 2024. In 2019, visitors spent a record-setting $145 billion in California. That number plummeted to $65 billion in 2020. With $100 billion in forecasted visitor spending this year, the foundation for recovery is in place and the state’s destination marketing organization is ready to lead the way.
Visit California has developed a robust strategy to parlay pent-up travel demand and a one-time $95 million state stimulus boost into an accelerated recovery for the hospitality sector. A combination of marketing, social and earned media, industry outreach, reactivating offices in key international markets, and unprecedented consumer domestic media buys will all play a role to get the travel industry back up to speed.
This fall, Visit California also will launch a new brand platform focused on promoting the state’s abundance of convention centers, outdoor meeting spaces and unique event venues to professional meeting planners around the globe. Pre-pandemic, meetings were responsible for over $65 billion in spending, and the sector is vital to sustain economic growth, especially in city centers that have been the hardest hit with the loss of both business and international travel.
After 18 months of unknowns, numerous indicators are beginning to emerge that show California poised for a full recovery. Throughout the pandemic, California maintained its position as the No. 1 travel destination in the United States. Hotel occupancy across the state has increased more than 20% over the last year, even missing that critical convention and international business.
California’s approach to the pandemic is also paying off as the state boasts the lowest COVID-19 transmission rate in the nation – a fact that resonates with potential visitors who have made safety an increased priority in their travel planning.
While the negative impact the pandemic has had on the hospitality industry is devastating, California has shown its resilience and is rolling out the red carpet in anticipation of the recovery wave.
Make no mistake, the industry still faces challenges. Climate change has created a longer fire season. Homelessness in urban areas continues to resist solutions. And multiple factors have contributed to labor shortages that prevent some businesses from operating at full capacity.
But despite so many challenges, California has added new and reimagined attractions, exciting new outdoor activities and over 7,000 new hotel rooms up-and-down the state that are now – or will soon be – welcoming visitors for the first time.
And with pandemic restrictions being lifted, international travel coming back, and the state’s hospitality industry returning to full swing, California is well-positioned to drive a dramatic tourism recovery.