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TRAVEL-UST-SANDIEGO-TOURISM-SD

Large crowds spent time at the beach in Imperial Beach for the 2018 Labor Day weekend.

SAN DIEGO — San Diego County welcomed a record 35.8 million visitors last year, and it hopes to attract even more this year following the launch of a $19 million advertising campaign that includes all new TV commercials.

Last year’s visitation numbers, which are still a preliminary estimate, mark the eighth consecutive year of growth for the region, the San Diego Tourism Authority reported recently. Year-over-year growth was 2.3 percent, with last year’s visitors spending an estimated $11.3 billion.

While the tourism bureau is hard-pressed to specifically identify what is fueling the growth — beyond a generally healthy tourism economy — air travel to San Diego was up about 10 percent compared to 2017, Tourism Authority research shows.

San Diego relies heavily on out-of-towners from closer-in areas such as Los Angeles, Phoenix and Las Vegas, so the uptick in air travel suggests that the county is doing a better job of enticing people from more distant locations in the U.S. to vacation or do business here, said Susan Bruinzeel, the Tourism Authority’s senior director of planning and research.

Overall, though, it is hard to identify which areas of the country are delivering the most visitors, she said.

According to the San Diego Airport Authority, among the largest growing domestic markets in terms of arriving passengers were Sacramento; Austin, Texas; Baltimore; St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo. That’s in part due to expanded nonstop flights to and from those cities. Overall inbound traffic from Mexico was up 20 percent, while the number of arriving passengers on the daily Japan Airlines flight from Tokyo grew by 8 percent, the airport said.

While larger cities such as Los Angeles attract a significant number of tourists from overseas locations, that sort of international travel represents a fraction of San Diego’s visitation. Tourism Authority CEO Joe Terzi believes that at least some of San Diego’s growth was helped along by the increased marketing it is doing in such cities as Boston, New York, Dallas and San Francisco.

“Our group meetings market has been fairly flat, and we’re seeing a little more business travel,” Terzi added. “We have limited growth internationally. L.A. has a more robust business travel market with a huge international feed into that and the leisure market.

“Also, the industry (these) past few years has benefited from a healthier tourism economy, so we’ve seen significant growth in pretty much every (U.S.) market.”

In recent weeks, Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles County all reported record visitation, with an estimated 57.6 million, 65.2 million and 50 million visitors, respectively. Each had slightly higher growth rates than San Diego’s.

In a move to ensure that San Diego is top of mind when people are making their vacation plans, the Tourism Authority has begun a broad advertising campaign that includes not only TV ads in select markets and also nationally, but also digital ads people will see when they’re searching online for vacation destinations.

Where last year, the agency spent $15 million, this year’s $19 million spend — the highest ever — takes into account more costly network advertising. For instance, 30-second TV spots will air nationally on ABC during February and across CBS, TBS, TNT, and TruTV and NBA TV through April as part of a March Madness/NBA media sponsorship. The overall marketing campaign will run through June.

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There will also be spot TV advertising in eight different cities, from Sacramento and Seattle to New York and Minneapolis, plus digital ads on online travel sites such as TripAdvisor, Expedia and Priceline.

The spots, which are new for this year, have a joyful theme as they’ve always had, but instead of last year’s “A San Diego Summer Feeling,” this campaign has been dubbed “Something to Smile About.”

There are three commercials, one intended for a general audience, a second for families and kids, and a third just for Mexico. Imagery of people enjoying themselves at the beaches, in the ocean and at local attractions predominate.

“It’s the same messaging — that sunny feeling that San Diego is all about,” Terzi said. “Our research continues to support the messaging we do. Our campaigns have had the highest recall among people we survey who have seen (tourism) ads.”

Internationally, the Tourism Authority will continue to market San Diego in eight different countries, including Canada, the U.K., Mexico and China.

As to future travel growth in the coming year, that is expected to slow somewhat amid more uncertainty in the overall economy. A recent report by the U.S. Travel Association predicts that domestic travel will continue to grow, although more slowly in 2019. International travel, the trade group said, is projected to “fizzle” in the first half of 2019.

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