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Economy

Visitors return to San Diego, but pandemic's impact lingers

San Diego’s tourism engine is revving up, but local officials say the region is still sputtering because of the pandemic.

In 2021, tourism numbers bounced back after a dismal showing in the first year of the coronavirus pandemic. In 2020, the industry shut down completely as public health officials tried to contain the airborne virus.

The San Diego Tourism Authority’s Julie Coker said the region was doing better than other tourist destinations in California and the rest of the country, in part because of high COVID-19 vaccination rates.

Visitors want to know they are safe.

Coker said the local hotel occupancy rate in 2021 was the fourth highest in the nation, with just under 74% of the room nights taken.

“There were a total of 24 million visitors that came to San Diego,” Coker said. “We were very excited about that because it was 61% over 2020 numbers.”

Even so, the number of visitors in 2021 was still 32% lower than the number in 2019, the last year before the pandemic, Coker said.

All that spending helped bring back the tourism sector’s jobs. A total of 196,000 people were employed in the hospitality industry in 2021, close to the 210,000 people who held jobs in the sector before the pandemic.

The region still got a major economic boost from those who did come to San Diego. Visitors spent $7.4 billion generating an estimated economic impact in the region of $12.6 billion.

San Diego officials say all that economic activity is good for the city’s pocketbook.

“Not just for the downtown businesses that serve the conventioneers,” said Todd Gloria, the mayor of San Diego. “And the tens of thousands of people who work at our hotels, who got their jobs back after the pandemic. It’s also a big deal for every San Diegan because the hotel room taxes that these folks generate make up a healthy portion of our city’s budget.”

Gloria hailed the return of Pride Week and Comic-Con as well-known signature events that encourage people to come to San Diego and spend money.

“After two years without these celebrations, we are back in business and ready to welcome many folks to San Diego to enjoy these special events,” Gloria said.

Both events were canceled the past two years because of the pandemic.

The mayor said San Diego was a welcoming city and he looked forward to greeting crowds of visitors in the next few weeks.