By Barbara Zaragoza
If you’ve ever enjoyed fine dining at the rooftop restaurant of Mister A’s, you might have watched the British Airway’s direct flight from London pass by the window before it landed on San Diego’s runway. A few years ago, the San Diego Tourism Authority (SDTA) worked with airline companies and the San Diego Regional Airport Authority to make that direct flight happen.
Each July tourists flock to the internationally renowned Comic-Con International convention, but many don’t think about the SDTA staff who work hard alongside the community to ensure the popular convention will return every year. These are just a couple of ways that the SDTA, a nonprofit organization composed of approximately 80 employees, works behind the scenes to entice people from around the world to choose San Diego as their destination for business and leisure travel.
Turns out, tourism is the third largest industry in San Diego, behind the military and manufacturing. Last year alone the revenue generated topped $10.8 billion in annual visitor spending and $17.9 billion in annual regional impact. Over the last five years, the number of tourists coming to the city has continued to increase, reaching 35 million in 2017.
The SDTA’s work has played an integral role in generating more visitors to the region. They have worldwide marketing campaigns, with focused efforts on eight countries: the US, Mexico, Canada, the UK, Germany, China, Japan and Australia. By using social media in China or banners on taxis in London, the SDTA reaches billions in hopes of attracting people to the city, where they will stay in local hotels and visit the region’s hottest restaurants, boutique shops and cultural locations.
Believe it or not, San Diego can be a difficult destination to promote. The city offers a wide diversity of experience, including beaches, the Zoo, cultural attractions and nightlife, but this diversity also has a downside. Although the city usually ranks high on “Top 10 Places to Visit” in travel industry research polls, San Diego rarely places #1. For a beach vacation, Hawaii comes to mind first. For families wanting to visit attractions, Orlando comes first—San Diego appears a little further down the list.
While locals who know the appeal of San Diego may think the destination sells itself, case studies have shown that when funds dry out for promoting tourism, cities experience economic fallout. Even Disneyland, which attracts millions of people every year, doesn’t stop advertising. “Visitors have so many choices for where they can travel,” says Kerri Kapich, SDTA Chief Operating Officer. “If we’re not continually showing potential travelers what the destination has to offer or introducing them to something new, San Diego will lose out.”
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Over the last several years, SDTA has focused their efforts on highlighting unique local experiences and the vibrancy of San Diego’s many neighborhoods. Candice Eley, Director of Communications, explains that her team has been marketing the city as a binational cultural region with close ties to Tijuana and Baja California.
“That’s something San Diego can really claim as a differentiator compared to other destinations. It’s the opportunity to cross the border and go to Tijuana for the day and also to see the influence of the border culture and how it has created a different destination than other California cities,” Eley says.
In particular, San Diego offers a fusion of California cuisine—which focuses on fresh farm to table food—with Mexican cuisine. Combined, the city has become a mecca for the Cali-Baja style of cooking.
The nonprofit’s success in marketing the city as a binational region peaked in 2016 when National Geographic Traveler selected San Diego-Tijuana as one of the 20 “Best of the World” destinations in their December 2015/January 2016 issue. Two years later, Visit California recognized the SDTA’s binational destination promotions with the Poppy Awards for Best Public Relations Campaign.
For residents, living in San Diego means having access to incredible attractions that millions of visitors seek out, but the tourism industry benefits locals in other ways. “One in eight San Diegans are employed in the tourism industry,” Kapich says. “When people think of the tourism sector, their first thought may be of hotels and then maybe attractions like the Zoo and SeaWorld. But restaurants play a big part, along with bars, craft breweries neighborhood shops and many other businesses.”
In fact, the city’s tourism industry employs over 194,000 people at 12,000 area businesses. Not only is SDTA’s marketing a key component to the continued health of the industry, but residents in general also see a benefit. About 60 years ago, the city set up the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT), which was intended to be used for marketing San Diego as a tourist destination. However, when the city faced economic crises, the TOT began to pay for street repairs, police services and infrastructure. Now tourists generate over $289 million in hotel room tax revenues and $778 million in total tax revenues each year. The SDTA estimates that San Diego households save $463 in taxes thanks to tourism.
Meanwhile, in 2008 hotels came together to form the Tourism Marketing District (TMD) and started collecting assessments. The SDTA annually applies to receive this TMD funding. The nonprofit also collects dues from their 900 members, which range from hotels and attractions to museums, catering companies, breweries and many other small businesses.
The SDTA recently launched several new initiatives that dive deeper into the local cultural experience visitors can have. Videos in the “One Bright Idea” series introduce visitors to Asian dining in the Convey district or bars that have the best tiki drinks, while “Sunny Seven” articles round up seven ways to enjoy the Kensington neighborhood or seven sites to explore in Point Loma. The SDTA’s “Guides to the Good Stuff” series, featuring local experts, has garnered more than 8 million views on videos that cover topics as wide-ranging as Cali-Baja cuisine, craft beer, music festivals and ballpark grub.
For residents, the intangible benefit of the tourism industry is taking pride living in a city that 35 million people want to visit each year. Behind the scenes, SDTA is helping to make that happen, but Kapich reminds residents that they are an important part of what makes the destination special. “We love how much pride locals have for our city. Our community continues to change and grow thanks to the vision of our residents, and that’s a story we want to share with the world.”