Foon Rhee

The Numbers Crunch: Can tourism help narrow California’s prosperity gap?

Riders check out the Lego Technic coaster at Legoland California in Carlsbad, near San Diego. San Diego County ranked second among California counties in tourism spending in 2014.
Riders check out the Lego Technic coaster at Legoland California in Carlsbad, near San Diego. San Diego County ranked second among California counties in tourism spending in 2014. Los Angeles Times

You know that old saying: It’s a nice place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live there?

Turns out it isn’t quite true when it comes to tourism spending. In California, as elsewhere, the top visitor destinations are also where the most people live.

When you think about all travel – for business as well as pleasure – it does make sense. Big cities are transportation and commercial hubs, and where conventions are held. The most populous areas are also where people are more likely to go to visit friends and family.

There are exceptions. Some rural areas with gorgeous scenery and natural attractions – think Napa and Lake Tahoe – draw big tourism dollars, says Dean Runyan, whose Portland firm did the California tourism study out this week.

According to the study, 2014 was a record year for California. About 251 million travelers spent $117.5 billion, up 3.6 percent from 2013 and the fifth straight increase since dipping below $94 billion during the recession.

Los Angeles County surpassed $25 billion, $860 million more than 2013, and one fifth of the total spending statewide. San Diego County accounted for $14.6 billion, San Francisco for $13.8 billion.

Other counties with low unemployment also did well. Orange had a 4.1 percent increase in tourist dollars last year, to $10.8 billion. Santa Barbara recorded a 4.1 percent increase to nearly $2 billion.

On the other end, Colusa County, with the state’s highest jobless rate at north of 20 percent, only had 1.8 percent growth and tourist spending totaled just $45 million. Visitor spending dropped in only five of 58 counties, but four of them have double-digit unemployment: Imperial, Merced, Stanislaus and Yuba.

It doesn’t seem quite right that relatively well-off areas also reap the most tourism dollars and related tax revenues, while places that desperately need the money and jobs come up short.

Officials ought to do all they can to use tourism to help narrow the prosperity gap. Runyan told me that while small counties don’t have the money to extend their marketing reach very far, they could partner with the statewide effort.

While Visit California, a nonprofit backed by the tourism industry, focuses on promoting the entire state and building its global brand, some of its ads feature rural destinations and urge visitors to venture beyond the usual gateways. And the Visit California board is to vote May 22 on more than doubling grants – from $290,000 to $650,000 – to help rural counties market themselves.

That’s a good start but a relative pittance. The board will vote on an overall 2015-16 budget of $116 million, an 87 percent increase funded by an increased assessment on the industry.

The 150-page study found that tourism generated $9.3 billion in state and local tax revenue last year and supports more than 1 million jobs. While many of these jobs are relatively low-paying, it beats being unemployed.

You have to take economic impact studies with a ton of salt. Still, it’s undeniable that tourism is a big and growing industry for California – nearly $58 billion, or 2.5 percent of the total state economy.

It’d just be better if struggling counties could share more of the wealth.

BY THE NUMBERS

Tourism spending in California hit a record high in 2014. Figures for selected counties:

▪ Los Angeles $25.0 billion

▪ San Diego $14.7 billion

▪ San Francisco $13.8 billion

▪ Sacramento $3.4 billion

▪ Fresno $1.4 billion

▪ Placer $980 million

▪ Yolo $307 million

▪ Merced $222 million

Source: Visit California

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