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The coronavirus hit to L.A. tourism: 22 million visitors and $13 billion in spending

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Drone images of Universal Studios Hollywood show empty parking garages April 28. Los Angeles is forecast to lose 22 million visitors and $13 billion in spending because of the coronavirus outbreak.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Once one of the world’s most popular tourism destinations, Los Angeles is expected to draw about 22 million fewer visitors this year and lose more than $13 billion in tourist spending because of the coronavirus outbreak.

A forecast commissioned by the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board estimates that Los Angeles County will draw about 29 million tourists this year, down from a pre-outbreak forecast of about 51 million.

For the record:
2:13 PM, May. 07, 2020 An earlier version of the story identified Ernest Wooden, Jr. as chairman of the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board. He is the president and chief executive.

Instead of $25 billion in spending on hotels, meals, tour buses and souvenirs, tourists will spend less than $12 billion, the report said.

Tourism board president Ernest Wooden Jr. called the numbers “pretty devastating” and predicted that a full recovery for the county could take as long as three and a half years.

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“It’s pretty bad, the hit we took,” he said.

The forecast by Tourism Economics, a Philadelphia-based travel data company, assumes that the travel industry gradually will begin to recover through the summer months with a true rebound beginning in 2021.

Adam Sacks, president of Tourism Economics, said international travel will continue to be severely curtailed through the first part of 2021.

“As a result, Los Angeles may be slower to recover than other parts of the country given its exposure to international markets, especially Asia, and larger events,” Sacks said in an email. “However, the recovery as it takes shape in 2021, especially in the second half, is expected to be robust.”

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A similar report for the state of California by Tourism Economics predicted overall travel spending in the state will drop to $72.8 billion in 2020, or 50% below 2019 spending.

The California forecast also projects a slow recovery, with travel spending in April expected to drop to $2.3 billion, or 81% below the levels of April 2019. By December, Tourism Economics predicts travel spending will be at least $7 billion, or 33% below the level of the previous December.

When tourism businesses such as theme parks, hotels and restaurants will reopen is unclear, with government and medical experts suggesting that such destinations may open in phases over the next several months.

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Once stay-at-home orders are lifted, Wooden said, the tourism board hopes to launch a campaign to try to encourage visitors from within California and the surrounding states to visit Los Angeles. A campaign to reach out to international visitors will come later, he said.

“Travel is a resilient business and it’s coming back,” Wooden said.

The tourism industry in Los Angeles County was estimated last year to support more than 525,000 jobs and ranks as the third-largest employment sector, behind professional and business services and educational and health services. Tourism Economics did not predict how many travel-related jobs the county would lose because of the pandemic, but Wooden said he wouldn’t be surprised if 75% of tourism workers were now furloughed.

The tourism forecast for California estimated the state had 613,000 fewer tourism and travel jobs in April compared with the 1.2 million such jobs in the same month last year. By December, California should have only 212,000 fewer jobs than in December 2019, when there were 1.18 million such jobs, the report said.

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Before the virus outbreak, Los Angeles achieved nine straight years of record visitation numbers, topping out at more than 50 million visitors in 2019. Before the outbreak, the tourism board expected to attract 51 million visitors in 2020.

One of the most painful financial blows to the travel business will be the loss of lucrative international travelers, according to the forecast. The number of international visitors is expected to drop by nearly 60% to only 3 million foreign tourists in 2020 while domestic visitation will drop by about 41% to about 26 million, the forecast predicts.

The loss of international travelers, especially those visiting from overseas, is particularly costly because foreign tourists typically stay longer and spend more money than tourists from other parts of California or from nearby states.

A burgeoning middle class in China has helped fuel a surge in Chinese tourists in Los Angeles, spending an average of about $6,900 per visit, according to the U.S. Travel Assn., a trade group for the country’s travel industry.

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The number of local hotel rooms booked by tourists is expected to drop to about 16 million this year, down from the previous projection of nearly 31 million before the coronavirus outbreak, according to the Tourism Economics forecast.

At Los Angeles International Airport, the number of international travelers flying in and out of the airport dropped to less than 900,000 in March, down nearly 57% from a year earlier, while the number of domestic fliers dropped to 2.4 million, down 55%, according to LAX statistics. Data for April are not yet available.

LAX, once the second- or third-busiest airport in the country with 1,200 takeoffs and landings a day, now operates about 400 takeoffs and landings daily, according to LAX officials.


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