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Pandemic-weary tourists are about to descend on San Diego

  • TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
                                The boardwalk in Pacific Beach will likely be a popular destination for summer travelers this year as the battered tourism industry looks forward to a busy season.

    TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE

    The boardwalk in Pacific Beach will likely be a popular destination for summer travelers this year as the battered tourism industry looks forward to a busy season.

SAN DIEGO >> After spending much of last year postponing vacations instead of planning them, Americans are ready to hit the road and board airplanes for domestic trips at a pace that in some instances is exceeding levels in 2019 — long before the arrival of the pandemic.

The latest outlook coming from the Automobile Club of Southern California bodes well for San Diego, always a popular destination for summer travelers. Local tourism officials as well are expecting plenty of visitors craving a summer getaway, but even as overnight stays are expected to tick up sharply from last year, a return to pre-pandemic levels is expected to take at least three years.

In the meantime, expect hotels and airplanes to be considerably fuller and roads more congested, as vaccinated Americans return to the leisure trips many forfeited last year as COVID-19 infections raged across the country. The auto club is projecting a sharp increase in overnight road trips compared to the last two years, based, in part, on requests for driving vacation map routes via AAA’s TripTik service.

Between April 1 and May 15, printouts of TripTik map routes, which include hotel stops marked along the way, grew 10 times between 2019 and 2021 and doubled this year compared to 2020, according to the auto club.

“Many of our members are taking domestic road trips and North American air trips instead of options that have not yet fully reopened such as cruises and international tours,” said Filomena Andre, the Automobile Club of Southern California’s vice president for travel serv­ices. “But new countries and cruise lines are rapidly announcing reopenings every day and North American cruises start at the end of June, so travelers who are interested in those types of vacations should work with a travel adviser to make sure they get the best availability and price.”

In San Diego County, tourism leaders are expecting 2021 to be significantly better than 2020 when travel ground to a halt for much of the year. This year, some 10 million more people are expected to visit the county than in 2020.

In all, 25 million people — coming to the county for the day or overnight — are forecast to spend $7.6 billion on hotels, restaurants, shopping and attractions this year. That’s a huge change from 2020 when visitor spending was a mere $5.2 billion, a nadir that hadn’t been seen since 2001.

Hoping to sustain travel momentum throughout the year, the San Diego Tourism Authority is debuting an $8 million marketing campaign in July that will run through December focused largely on the Western states. The theme is “Happiness is calling you back,” and advertising will be on various digital platforms, social media and also on broadcast and online television.

Even with an uptick in demand for hotel rooms, average daily room rates are not back up to where they were before the pandemic, Kerri Kapich, chief operating officer of the visitors’ bureau, reported in a presentation last week to San Diego City Council members.

“It won’t be until 2025 when we will see a return to average daily rates,” she said. “So as we have a very competitive market, much like what happened post 9/11, it takes time for all sectors of the tourism economy to return. Right now, we’re very dependent on leisure travel, and as we are able to see meetings and conventions, corporate travel, and international travel return, that is what will drive the revenues for the industry.”

Among the various metrics the Automobile Club of Southern California is using to forecast heightened summer travel demand are bookings for Pleasant Holidays vacation packages. May 2021 bookings for the company’s destinations — including Hawaii, Mexico and the Caribbean — are up by 33% compared to May 2019, the auto club reports.

Consumer surveys also point to renewed enthusiasm for travel. According to Destination Analysts, a tourism market research firm that has been conducting weekly surveys of leisure and business travelers, 55% of those polled in January said they were ready to travel, and by May that number had grown to 77%.

“The auto club doesn’t have specific projections for San Diego for the summer, but we do know road trips will be by far the preferred mode of travel,” said Automobile Club of Southern California spokeswoman Marie Montgomery Nordhues. “One key factor that will boost San Diego tourism, of course, is when cruise ships are allowed to sail out of the city.”

San Diego’s normal cruise season, which last year was canceled by the pandemic, is expected to resume this fall.

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