By Cassandra Reinhart, Special To The Independent
A new study verifies that 6.3 million people visited Laguna Beach last year, and most of them are locals.
Visit Laguna Beach’s 2016 Visitor Profile Study shows that 95%, or about 6 million of Laguna Beach’s annual visitors, are day trippers. Just 271,000 visitors stay in local hotels, and the remaining 44,000 visitors stay at friends or relatives’ homes.
“Most visitors come for the day only,” said Ashley Johnson, president and chief executive of Visit Laguna Beach, the city’s contracted promoter.
The study, done by the tourism market research firm Destination Analysts, Inc. of San Francisco, shows 96.4% of all visitors come from the U.S., and of those 80% are Californians. Only 3.6% of overall visitors are international.
“The goal was to gather reliable, fresh data to show the economic impact of tourism to Laguna Beach as well as visitor volumes,” said Johnson.
The new numbers reflect what is evident on any warm, sunny day: a day-tripper influx that continues to increase, adding to congestion and complicating logistical issues for city planners. Development growth along the state Route 133 corridor and in cities such as Irvine, Mission Viejo and Laguna Woods feed the beach rush.
Former Chamber of Commerce President Larry Nokes pointed out that a recent Irvine housing tract outside the city’s border is named Laguna Altura. “They are using the Laguna brand, so where else are they going to come to the beach?”
Laguna Beach is being partly compensated for the high-density housing developments going in upstream. A 2013 settlement, not previously reported, was struck between the city and Heritage Fields El Toro LLC, developer of the Orange County Great Park in Irvine. In the settlement, Heritage Fields agreed to pay the city of Laguna Beach $6 million over the course of its housing development at Great Park. To date, the developer paid $1.5 million, and will pay another $1.5 million when the 4,895th unit is built. Each additional 500 units thereafter is another $1 million to the city.
“It was an agreement regarding the city’s concerns over the impact from the project,” said Laguna Beach City Manager John Pietig. “The money goes into an infrastructure improvement fund and the future payments will as well.”
So far Pietig says some of the money received has been used for traffic studies of Laguna Canyon Road.
Craig Reem, Irvine’s director of public affairs, says development in feeder cities is not solely to blame for the growing pains day-trippers have brought Laguna.“I am looking at the website; the city is in the business of drawing people to ‘World Class Laguna Beach.’ I just want to avoid any sense in Laguna that the traffic that comes through the city daily is related to Irvine being at fault.”
While the tourism increase contributes to internal congestion, it also generates economic vitality. The Visit Laguna study data shows that in 2016, direct visitor spending totaled $556.6 million with the average hotel guest spending $235 per day and day-trippers spending $57 per day. The study showed through shopping, dining and lodging, visitors generate $17.8 million towards local taxes. The study also attributes 5,000 local jobs to Laguna Beach’s tourism.
The visitors also impact every artery into town as well. Last summer, the city partnered with the Orange County Transit Authority to create the “Summer Breeze” bus service to shuttle day-trippers into Laguna from a parking lot area near the canyon and 405 freeway. The goal was to reduce congestion and the number of vehicles trying to get into Laguna Beach. But the pilot program was not without its critics. Orange County Supervisor Lisa Bartlett helped spearhead the program. “This year is going to be bigger and better as a result from input,” says Bartlett’s spokesman Sergio Prince. “The festivals are going to be actively involved in spreading the word and getting patrons to use the service.”
Pietig says the city has also applied for a grant to cover half the costs associated with the Summer Breeze service this year and hope to expand it in the future. “We are meeting with OCTA with the possibility of a more robust transit program that can go from these new dwelling areas to Laguna Beach. Our hope is that as these units are built they would be able to utilize regular transport, go from their door to Laguna Beach.”
Visit Laguna Beach will continue to collaborate with the city on transportation and way-finding to compensate for the annual increase in visitors, said Johnson.
Summer Breeze, negotiations with Heritage LLC, task-force recommended improvements to Laguna Canyon Road and a voter-approved hike in bed taxes, all are driven by the same force, Pietig said. “These are all related to the same issue: the number of people and vehicles that come to our town.”