Tourism in the COVID-19 Era
By Tyler Russell McCusker
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the damage to our economy and the effects on peoples’ willingness to travel, Laguna Beach will likely be hit with one of its worst summers of all time, in terms of tourism numbers. Even if the art festivals manage to stay open this summer, will families be ready to hit the road or jump on a plane, financially or otherwise? Laguna Beach’s number one industry, tourism, is currently taking a nosedive.
The sad thing is: This is what some people wanted.
Local groups are trying to stop the development of new hotels to reduce the amount of visitors (among other reasons). A parking structure as part of the Village Entrance was defeated five years ago because some residents feared that it would attract more drivers to town. Instagram has been viewed as the enemy because influencers attract young people to Thousand Steps and other beaches, who end up parking in resident neighborhoods. Locals pull their hair out and post rants online during the summer that “traffic never used to be this bad – go home, tourists!”
Unfortunately, that may be exactly what we get this spring and summer, and it’s going to be grim.
From Visit Laguna Beach’s most recent annual report, although nearly four years old, visitors spent $556,600,000 in town over one year. The visitor economy generated $17.8 million in local tax revenues. Tourism supports 5,002 jobs in Laguna Beach.
I think the most important thing to note is that overnight guests at Laguna Beach hotels spend four times more per person, person day than day-trippers, according to a 2016 Visit Laguna report. Visit Laguna Beach’s numbers show more than six million day trippers visited Laguna Beach during a year, while only about 271,000 visitors spent the night.
For this reason, we need to work harder to attract overnight guests. These will be the kinds of visitors that contribute to our local economy, patronize the arts to support our crucial creative class, and walk or use our trolley system rather than drive.
But what have we done instead? We’ve strongly limited what kinds of businesses and shops we can have downtown, we’ve raised meter rates to astronomical levels (and potentially even higher soon), we’ve eliminated short-term lodging, and we’ve tied up entrepreneurs and developers in planning processes that take years, until they decide to recoup their losses and take their ideas elsewhere. Our result is a boarded-up and struggling downtown, one that will not survive the COVID-19 era.
So, while you drive the empty streets, passing boarded-up shops, closed restaurants and “clearance” signs, remember that Laguna’s economy lives or dies on one thing: the visitors.
Editor’s Note: The Downtown Specific Plan Area’s vacancy rate was 2.9% reported in the Retail Market Evaluation by Stanley R Hoffman Associates and Stoffel & Associates.
Once we get through this trying time, let’s create a town for them that is more than bluebelt and greenbelt. A town that is as culturally and artistically-significant as it was for our founders.
McCusker is raising three kids in Laguna and the general manager of 104.7 FM.