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Los Angeles wants to woo international tourists and repair COVID-related losses

After several years of slowdown, tourism in Los Angeles County is rebounding.

But the recovery from the COVID-19 lull has been uneven so far, officials say — with far fewer international visitors heading to Los Angeles than in the past pre-pandemic year.

“Domestic leisure travel has really led the recovery process” and fully recovered after tourism was upended by the pandemic, said Adam Burke, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board.

However, international tourism is still down by almost a third compared to 2019. “We have a lot of work to do to drive recovery internationally,” Burke said.

This slower recovery has a cost.

“Foreign visitors are by far our most valuable guests,” Burke said, adding that it takes nearly three domestic travelers to spend as much as a typical guest from another country, according to his organization’s figures.

He blamed the slow process that often forces would-be international travelers to wait more than a year to obtain a visa – a delay he called a “significant deterrent.”

Nationally, widespread problems in the airline industry have “wreaked havoc on travel schedules” and could dampen domestic tourism in Los Angeles, Burke said.

Meetings and conventions – which brought in $24 billion in 2019, compared to $31 billion from leisure visits – have also struggled to rebound. So far this year, they are only 81% of their 2019 level.

The tourism industry employs nearly 560,000 people, making it one of the top five employers in the county, according to Burke.

From 2020 to 2022, nearly 200,000 Angelenos employed in tourism were unemployed and businesses catering to tourists lost nearly $43 billion in sales due to pandemic precautions that restricted travel, a he declared.

Now his organization wants to remind people “how essential tourism is to our local community.”

To that end, the Convention and Visitors Bureau is buying ads on traditional broadcast channels in Canada and Mexico for the first time, hoping to attract more visitors from those countries.

The organization also plans to spend some $6.5 million on advertising in other major U.S. cities.

But not everyone may be entirely on board with the desire to attract more visitors to Los Angeles. Residents may worry that an influx of tourists will exacerbate the city’s already chronic traffic and pollution problems.

And in the midst of a prolonged strike by hotel workers, attracting more people to the city would likely mean more guests would have to choose whether or not to cross the picket lines.

Burke countered that his organization is committed to “ensuring that tourism is done in a sustainable way.” He touted investments in sustainable fuels for airlines and encouraged visitors to “travel car-free in Los Angeles.”

Additionally, he said the Tourism and Convention Committee encourages guests to visit all kinds of neighborhoods, not just high-traffic locations. He said more tourists in places like South Los Angeles would lead to a “more equitable distribution of those economic benefits.”

About two-thirds of Los Angeles County’s 1,300 hotels have fewer than 300 rooms, he said, so visitors have many options to choose from.

“While we remain very optimistic, while we still have a ways to go, we can accelerate the pace of recovery,” Burke said.