Tourist spending in San Diego sets a new record; La Jolla businesses look for a ‘very’ busy summer

La Jolla's Nine-Ten restaurant is housed at the Grande Colonial hotel.
La Jolla’s Nine-Ten restaurant and its home, the Grande Colonial hotel, had “a phenomenal year” in 2022, according to General Manager Kim Avant.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Coming off a banner 2022, local businesses hope to rebound this summer from a slow start to 2023 attributed to cool, damp weather.


As La Jolla’s tourism businesses hope for a summer fortified by sunshine after a disappointing winter and spring, tourists across San Diego have been spending more than they ever have — a record $13.6 billion in 2022 — even as the number of visitors has yet to rebound to levels before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived more than three years ago.

Credit longer stays and inflation — including higher room rates and more expensive restaurant meals — according to a new report from the San Diego Tourism Authority.

Tourism Authority communications director Paul Garcia said La Jolla-specific figures are not available because “the numbers are not broken down into neighborhoods. It’s something they would like to do for future reports.”

The latest San Diego regional figures are something of a surprise, considering they easily blew past a 2021 forecast that visitor spending wouldn’t eclipse annual pre-pandemic expenditures of $11.6 billion until at least 2024. And even then, the forecast said, the total annual sum spent on things such as hotel stays, dining out, visits to theme parks and transportation would reach only $11.9 billion in 2024.

But according to the new report, prepared by the San Diego Regional Policy & Innovation Center, the overall spending last year on hotels, eating out and drinking, local attractions, sports and concerts, shopping and transportation was a record, even though the nearly 29 million people who visited San Diego County in 2022 were 6 million fewer than the 35.1 million in 2019.

Tourism Authority Chief Operating Officer Kerri Kapich said San Diego’s steadfast commitment to marketing the city, even during the pandemic’s lean years, contributed to its robust revival.

“We were still inviting leisure travelers to San Diego in 2020 and 2021 when it was safe to do so, and a lot of cities did not spend any money in 2020 and very little in 2021,” Kapich said. “We started off smartly where we were only talking to our drive markets, and in 2022, we expanded it further and even further this year. Because we’ve been consistent about getting the word out, I do believe that helped us.”

Many La Jolla businesses agreed that 2022 was a very good year.

La Jolla Kayak in La Jolla Shores, which currently books its original kayak tour for $59 per person, had a “great year,” with tourists and locals alike getting out on the water, owner Sharon Luscomb told the La Jolla Light.

She attributed that success to COVID restrictions being scaled back.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego on Prospect Street, 2022 meant the reopening of the space after a multi-year closure for renovation.

The rest of 2022 after the April reopening saw the museum, which charges $25 for admission, bring in more than 120,000 visitors, according to Chief Advancement Officer Edie Nehls.

“Our most frequent visitors reside in nearby neighborhoods such as University City, Carmel Valley, Pacific Beach and, of course, La Jolla’s Village,” she said. The most frequent out-of-state visitors are from Arizona.

At Havaianas on Prospect Street, which opened in April last year selling trendy flip-flops for about $34, along with other wares, owner Brandon Lindley said 2022 was “the worst year for my business,” as his Havaianas store at UTC closed even as The Village location opened.

“I attribute the changes to soaring inflation, price gouging and skyrocketing costs of doing business,” he said.

However, Lindley said, “the key performance metrics for my La Jolla store remained high from April to October 2022, as the average transaction spend was higher even though overall sales volume was down.”

La Jolla's Cove House restaurant had a positive year in 2022 in both revenue and guest counts, owner Darren Moore says.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

At La Jolla restaurants Cove House and Shore Rider, where meals are $30 and less, “2022 was an up year for both revenue and guest counts,” owner Darren Moore said. “There was certainly demand backlogged from COVID.”

Nine-Ten restaurant, which charges $31-$50 for a meal, and the Grande Colonial hotel, which houses the restaurant on Prospect Street and charges a July room rate of about $429, had “a phenomenal year” in 2022, General Manager Kim Avant said.

“We exceeded any prior records ... by a really large margin,” Avant said.

Up Prospect Street at the La Valencia Hotel, where a July room books for about $620, “2022 was certainly busier than average, as we still felt pent-up demand post-COVID,” said Marketing Director Annalise Dewhurst.

And at Inn by the Sea on Fay Avenue, where a room costs about $429 in July, last year “was very robust,” according to General Manager Scott Blaul.

The hotel “flourished with local and out-of-town travelers,” he said. “It was a great comeback year.”

Though many La Jolla businesses say 2022 was a good year, Havaianas was an exception.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

However, the first half of 2023 told a different story for some La Jolla businesses. The winter and spring storms created surf conditions that are “tough on kayaking and ocean activity businesses in the beach areas,” Luscomb said. The year “has been off to a challenging start.”

It’s also been disappointing so far at Moore’s restaurants because of the wet winter, he said. “I know we have May gray and June gloom, but this year everyone is less tolerant of the traditional weather patterns because we got so heavily rained on in the early part of the year.”

The cooler and rainier winter and spring got 2023 off to “a little slower” start at the Grande Colonial and Nine-Ten as well, Avant said.

“When people are making the decision to go on a vacation, weather ... is going to be a factor,” Avant said. “When … San Diego hadn’t had sunny skies since February … that put a little bit of a damper on some of the travel demand.”

At La Valencia, Dewhurst said the hotel is “seeing 2023 level out compared to what we’ve seen the past few years.”

Therefore, most La Jolla businesses are welcoming summer with expectations that warmer, sunnier weather will heat things up again.

“We are very optimistic and hopeful that the summer will be very busy with the weather getting nicer,” Luscomb said. “We are already seeing a lot of tourists and locals out as of this week.”

The Museum of Contemporary Art also is looking forward to a strong summer, with Nehls pointing to special programs and extended hours as draws for locals.

“Last week there was a real uptick,” Moore said. “Everyone is tired of the sun not shining.”

La Valencia is seeing more short-term bookings, Dewhurst said. “We’re expecting a busy summer.”

Avant also is “pretty confident for the summer that we’re going to be achieving what we did last year.”

“We are very optimistic and hopeful that the summer will be very busy with the weather getting nicer. We are already seeing a lot of tourists and locals out.”

— La Jolla Kayak owner Sharon Luscomb

In San Diego at large, a rise in nightly rates for hotel rooms has been especially notable. The average daily room rate last month was $201.59 — a nearly 22 percent increase from $165.41 in May 2019, according to STR, which tracks hotel performance across the United States. The average rate sunk to $89.23 a month after the 2020 pandemic lockdown.

Similarly, San Diego hotel revenue has surged, in many instances outperforming top tourism markets across the country. Revenue per available room — a standard metric for measuring hotels’ financial performance — rose more than 18 percent over the past four years, from $122.42 in May 2019 to $144.87 last month. Only a couple of other major markets exceeded that — Nashville and Miami.

The success of San Diego County hotels directly benefits the coffers of cities across the region in the form of tax revenue — more than $1 billion total last year, including $360 million in room taxes, or transient occupancy taxes, as they’re known. For the city of San Diego, occupancy taxes totaled $259 million.

“TOT revenue funds our general fund, it helps to fund essential services,” San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria said at a June 21 news conference. “It can be used to fill potholes, make improvements to storm drains, maintain our streetlights, for lifeguards, trash collection, parks, libraries.” ◆


11:05 a.m. June 27, 2023: This article was updated with a comment from the Tourism Authority’s Paul Garcia.