COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | GEORGE CHAMBERLIN

Tourism, economy go hand in hand

With the Memorial Day weekend -- the unofficial start to summer -- less than two weeks away, Americans are ready to hit the road in levels unseen since before the Great Recession.

AAA Travel is forecasting 37.2 million people will travel 50 miles or more from home this year, the highest volume for the holiday in 10 years. And the majority — 33 million — will take drive.

Many of those people hitting the road will be making the trip down Interstate 5 from Orange and Los Angeles counties, as well as motorists from Riverside County traveling south on Interstate 15.

San Diego County has proved itself to be one of California’s top travel destinations. The San Diego Tourism Authority reports that 33.8 million people visited here in 2014.

A report from Visit California, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting the Golden State, says tourists spent $14.65 billion in San Diego, more than the combined tourist revenue for Monterey, Santa Barbara, Sacramento, Fresno and Shasta County.

Only Los Angeles received a bigger economic benefit from tourism, bringing in more than $25 billion.

“California’s powerful tourism economy is great news for all Californians,” said Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California. “This report shows that visitors who inject billions of dollars into our economy lift businesses from every sector, create jobs and support local economies.”

The Tourism Authority says the visitor industry in San Diego employs more than 173,000 San Diegans in lodging, food services, attractions and transportation.

“Employment in the travel industry rebounded last month, adding 2,200 jobs in April,” said David Huether, senior vice president of research at the U.S. Travel Association.

“Travel continues to be a consistent job creator and a strong contributor to the U.S. economy, generating 11,400 direct jobs so far this year. Since the employment recovery began, the travel industry has created 855,300 jobs, outpacing job growth in the rest of the economy by 34 percent,” he said.

To be sure, the travel industry has survived some very difficult times. After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, business and leisure travel came to a complete halt. And, just as things were beginning to improve, along came the Great Recession.

For businesses, one of the first places to cut in tough times is travel.

“When money is tight, which is not the case now, and traveling is expensive, people will pull that expense,” Gary London, president of London Group Realty Advisors, said at a recent tourism conference.

“They will opt for video conferencing or other communication choices. Not every medium requires face-to-face visits, so this can be eliminated during tough times,” he said.

San Diego’s tourism industry benefits from a mix of business and leisure travel. The region is home to about 474 hotel and motel properties with nearly 60,000 rooms available to tourists.

As a result, local governments in the region collected $223 million last year in transient occupancy taxes.

Bottom line: As goes the economy, so goes the tourism industry. As consumers grow more confident with their personal finances and job situation, the more likely they will feel comfortable packing up the family and hitting the road.

Chamberlin is executive editor of The Daily Transcript.

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