When Dallas, Texas resident Lois Green offered to take her daughter Ava anywhere for her 16th birthday, the teen chose a trip to Hollywood so she could visit the Walk of Fame, see the Hollywood sign, take in a celebrity home tour and, of course, check out Disneyland.
This was no budget vacation. They booked a pricey VIP tour of the Anaheim theme park – starting at about US$3,000 (RM12,577) a day – and stayed at the swanky Dream Hotel in Hollywood, where nightly rates are as high as US$439 (RM1,840).
“I have not held back on my chequebook on this trip,” Green said as she, her daughter and a friend dined at the Dream Hotel’s rooftop restaurant.
“We are really spoiling ourselves.”
Hollywood is enjoying a surge in domestic visitors such as Green who are splurging on high-end digs, souvenirs, food and big-ticket attractions. That is good news for Hollywood business owners who have lost out on the revenue from big-spending international travellers due to pandemic travel restrictions.
The loss has been significant: International visitors such as those from Europe or China spend an average of US$4,200 (RM17,608) per visit to the United States, while American tourists spends much less – about US$600 (RM2,515) – per trip.
But that might be changing. Business owners say they’re seeing US tourists with hefty bank accounts, which they attribute to more than a year of deferred travel and government stimulus money. Many travellers got the green light to visit when California ended most pandemic restrictions in June, reopening and lifting capacity limits at theme parks, beaches and restaurants.
“I think Americans are just happy to get out of the house,” said Jen Ryan, general manager of Funko, a toys and collectibles business on Hollywood Boulevard, where sales are exceeding pre-pandemic levels.
Between April and June, foot traffic on Hollywood Boulevard jumped as much as 153%, according to a study by the Hollywood Partnership, a business improvement programme for the shops along the boulevard. The hotel occupancy rate in the Hollywood/Beverly Hills area has climbed from 52% in April to 72% in July, according to STR, a global hospitality data and analytics company.
About 95% of visitors to Hollywood now come from the US, with only 5% representing international travellers such as tourists from Canada and Mexico, said Kristopher Larson, president of the Hollywood Partnership. Before the pandemic, about 15% of visitors to Hollywood were international visitors, who tend to stay longer and spend more on food, hotels and souvenirs, he said.
Why are tourists spending their vacation dollars around Hollywood?
The visitors cite Southern California’s warm weather, beaches, an array of attractions to choose from and a chance – slim as it may be – to spot a celebrity.
Plus, the surge of the Delta variant in some countries has made travelling abroad much riskier than staying local. Although many countries, including most of Europe, have reopened to Americans, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention has cautioned against visiting until travellers are fully vaccinated against Covid-19. Also, Americans returning from abroad must first produce a negative coronavirus test taken in the previous three days.
A music fanatic from Michigan, John Napoletano, stopped by the Madame Tussauds museum recently to check out the wax figures of Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman and Robert Redford.
He said his two-day visit would include stops at Venice Beach, the Hollywood sign, the Whiskey a Go Go nightclub and the Capitol Records building.
“I’ve been wanting to come here for years,” he said before heading out to examine the handprints and footprints of movie legends on the pavement outside the TCL Chinese Theatre. “There is so much to do.”
Larson and Hollywood business owners say the upswing in spending by domestic travellers is keeping Hollywood’s tourism industry flourishing – for now.
“Everyone is living their best lives,” said Vaughn Davis, general manager of the Dream Hotel where the occupancy rate has peaked at 85% and revenue from food and beverage sales has started to exceed pre-pandemic numbers.
“They just want to have fun.”
At Madame Tussauds wax museum, next to the TCL Chinese Theatre, demand has surpassed 2019 levels and “just keeps picking up”, with most visitors coming from San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area and Mexico, said museum marketing manager Helen Larimore, who declined to disclose attendance numbers.
Since Amoeba Music moved in April from Sunset Boulevard to a new location on Hollywood Boulevard, business has surpassed pre-pandemic levels, thanks primarily to tourist foot traffic from the Walk of Fame, said Melissa Logan, a senior manager at the famed record store.
The tourists, loaded down with bags of souvenirs, are not skimping when buying vinyl records, posters and T-shirts, she said.
“They are buying what they want,” Logan said. “I think people have been locked up for a year, and they are going for it right now.”
On Hollywood Boulevard, streams of tourists shuffled along the Walk of Fame, photographing the plaques of celebrity stars embedded in the sidewalk, sidestepping CD peddlers and posing for photos with people in superhero costumes.
Starline Tours, once the largest tour bus company in Los Angeles, is running seven double-decker buses and seven smaller vans on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with fewer vehicles during the rest of the week. The drivers and passengers wear masks throughout the tours.
Before the pandemic, Starline operated up to 24 double-decker buses every day plus at least 16 celebrity home tour vans.
Kami Farhadi, chairman of Starline, said private tours have become increasingly popular among his clients, about 95% of whom are from the United States.
“Business conditions are looking favourable for the short term,” he said. “Long term we are all dependent on a high majority of the US population being vaccinated quickly, before yet another variant of Covid-19 embeds itself.” – dpa