By: Edwin Fuller
Founder and President of Laguna Strategic Advisors
Tourism is the economy’s Rodney Dangerfield.
This significant driver of the Orange County economy doesn’t often get the respect it deserves from local business and political leaders — as well as the general public.
Let’s face it, Orange County would be simply another plain-vanilla town — minus many high-end touches and jobs — without the beaches and man-made attractions the tourism trade peddles.
Some of this disconnect is due to the simplicity of the business: selling natural beauty and fun. That doesn’t seem very high-brow vs. say, high-tech innovation, curing diseases, building buildings or making gadgetry.
Part of the derision is built-in. Being seen as a “tourist trap” isn’t the most endearing reputation for any town anywhere. And in Orange County, tourism’s obvious leader has a love-hate relationship with the public: Disneyland.
To be fair, some criticism is tied to irksome industry habits. Such as focusing on upscale clients while worker pay remains near the bottom of the local income spectrum.
Orange County’s leading tourism proponents, acting as the Orange County Visitors Association, are attempting to change those poor impressions with a new report detailing the industry’s good-sized slice of the overall Orange County economy.
“We’ve done a terrible job of informing the public about our industry,” says Jay Burress, chairman of the countywide association of local visitor bureaus and CEO of Visit Anaheim. “We need to show them the opportunity here.”
Like any industry-supported impact study, data should be taken with a touch of skepticism. With caveats noted, the study gives clues about how the business of tourism is more than hotels, theme parks and flocks of foreign tourists.
The research attempts to quantify the not-so-obvious links — dubbed “indirect” or “induced” ties — between what visitors spend here and the behind-the-scenes business efforts required to support those who directly cater to those visitors. Here are eight noteworthy takeaways …
1. Big, growing dollars
By the association’s math, tourism-related spending in Orange County from 48.2 million visitors in 2016 totaled $13 billion.
That’s a lot of hotel rooms, airfares, theme park tickets, meals, trinkets and even vacation home investments! And it’s a growth business.
Annual visitor counts are up 5.4 million since 2010, a 13 percent jump. Spending per visitor is up 19 percent in six years to $270 a trip. Overall, Orange County‘s spending growth of 34 percent since 2010 tops statewide growth of 26 percent.
2. Lots of small trips
Overall, Orange County tourism is a regional draw.
There is a 91 percent chance trips to Orange County are domestic. The largest block of those visitors — 43 percent — come from the rest of California. Top trips from out of state hail from Arizona and Nevada. Next comes visits from Washington state and Texas.
They’re also quick visits: 56 percent are here just for a day. And 90 percent of the travel is for leisure, not business-related.
3. Large foreign wallets
While foreign tourists are a bit of an Orange County rarity, those who do come spend big.
Foreigners are just 9 percent of all visitors but account for 20 percent of Orange County’s tourism spending. Basically, they spend twice as much when they’re here.
Oh, the foreign tourist you meet is most likely from Canada … then China, Mexico, Japan and the U.K., by the annual ranking of visitor counts.
4. Hotels. Hotels. Hotels.
Despite all the local hotel construction you’ve witnessed, the report says demand for local hotels has far outstripped new room supply.
That’s a good reason why spending on lodging has grown 55 percent since 2010 to $3.2 billion — nearly twice the industry’s overall growth, making it Orange County’s top-grossing tourism niche.
And that adds up to local lodging employing 29,000 people with a $1.1 billion payroll.
5. Eating and shopping
Visitors don’t simply pay for lodging and theme-park tickets.
Two noteworthy economic add-ons from tourism are a visitor’s dining and shopping — away from tourism sites. And Orange County has been a global leader is encouraging “retail tourism” at its high-end malls.
The report ties $3 billion in spending by out-of-town visitors at both local eateries and retail stores. And tourism supports one-third of all local food jobs and 8 percent of retail employment.
Curiously, spending on food is up smartly — a 30 percent jump in five years. But retail growth is muted: up only 17 percent in the same period. Does that speak to a broader change in consumer spending: more experiences and fewer goods?
6. Large tax bills
Local tourism leaders frequently remind us their industry pays significant state and local taxes — most notability nightly levies on hotel guests.
This math shows local tourism paying $1.1 billion in state and local taxes in 2016, which is deftly translated by the report as equating to $835 per Orange County household.
While that’s true enough, more than a few folks around the county are questioning the true cost of the industry’s large footprint to the public.
For example, the same report claims tourism is tied to 1,612 government workers who were paid $110 million in 2016 … salaries paid by those same tax dollars.
7. Jobs aplenty
Orange County tourism bosses directly employ 128,700, according to the report, making the industry the county’s sixth-biggest employer.
In addition, employment due to tourism-related work — numbers that often can be debated within such impact reports — last year totaled 47,100 workers, largely at various business-services endeavors.
When the report combined those two sources of employment, it concluded overall tourism-related work equaled 8 percent of all Orange County jobs.
8. Pay problems
The big knock on the tourism work is the paychecks as many of the industry’s jobs offer low wages and part-time hours.
My trusty spreadsheet, using the study’s data, shows direct tourism jobs generated an average annual wage of $34,600 in 2016. Curiously, jobs simply tied to tourism by the report averaged $57,500 in pay.
Now, tourism work can be great for folks who need employment flexibility or who simply need a job. And, yes, those who love the trade can advance from entry-level jobs to good-paying supervisory or managerial work.
“This business has strong opportunities for people to grow,” says Ed Fuller, CEO of the Orange County Visitors Association who’s career in tourism started as a security guard.
While the income gap between local salaries and Orange County’s high cost of living is not unique to tourism, the industry is frequently portrayed as a key example of the “affordability” challenge.
Tourism can’t fix this local cost-of-living gap by itself. But the industry’s high-profile employment challenge does help explain the oddly sullied image.