|By Rick Orlov, Daily News, Los Angeles
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Jan. 4, 2005 -- A record 24.9 million tourists visited Los Angeles last year and provided a $12.7 billion boost to the local economy, and city officials said Tuesday the figure is expected to grow this year.
The influx of visitors -- more than the 24.3 million drawn to the city in 2004 -- spent nearly 8.5 percent more than visitors the previous year. Officials project tourism to increase 2.7 percent this year, with more than 25 million visitors spending nearly $16 billion.
Delighting crowds of tourists who surrounded him at his news event outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa pressed his hands in the palm prints of actor Gregory Peck and bought a tiny, gold-plated Oscar statuette from a nearby shop.
"When people think of Los Angeles, they think of Hollywood," Villaraigosa said while other city officials posed in front of the theater with people dressed as superheroes. "It didn't happen by accident, and we have to make sure we are out there encouraging people to come to this city."
The increase comes amid a general recovery in the tourism industry since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and coincides with city efforts to lure a luxury hotel downtown and plans by the owner of the Staples Center for a $5 billion sports-entertainment-residential complex known as "L.A. Live" that would be one of the largest developments in downtown history.
The city hosted 15 conventions in fiscal 2005, and LA Inc., the group overseeing the city's convention business, estimated the number of hotel rooms booked last year -- for 24 conventions over the next several years -- at nearly 290,000.
That compares with just nine conventions and 73,000 hotel rooms booked the previous year.
Mark Lieberman, president of LA Inc., credited Villaraigosa with helping land two national conventions for the city -- the National Council of La Raza and the AARP meetings.
The La Raza convention is expected to account for 5,500 bed nights, while the AARP meeting, scheduled for 2011, will result in 25,000 bed nights and bring in an estimated $11 million, officials said.
Michael Collins, vice president of LA Inc., credited Villaraigosa's willingness to talk with convention planners as well as growing interest in downtown Los Angeles as a convention site.
"We are considered an 'A' market and we need the amenities to go along with that," Collins said. "With the 'L.A. Live' project and the talk of a convention center hotel, there is a lot of buzz about Los Angeles."
While negotiations for the 56-story downtown hotel broke down in November -- despite a quarter-billion-dollar public-financing package -- Villaraigosa said Tuesday he remains optimistic.
"It is important we have this hotel," Villaraigosa said. "I am confident it will be built."
Jack Kyser, chief economist of the Economic Development Corp., said the state and national economies are helping lure tourists from around world.
Added to that is a city emphasis on reducing street crime, said council President Eric Garcetti, who represents a portion of Hollywood.
"A couple of years ago, people were afraid to come here," Garcetti said.
Hollywood also has undergone a renaissance, with the Hollywood & Highland Center that includes the Renaissance Hotel and the Kodak Theatre, which hosts the Academy Awards.
Many of the theaters along Hollywood Boulevard also have been improved in recent years, and the Red Line subway has helped ease some traffic problems.
Other sites in the city also are benefiting from increased tourism. On Tuesday, tourists shuffled from shop to shop inside Universal CityWalk, delighted by the clear blue skies and mild temperatures.
"It's so pretty here. We went through Topanga Canyon, and I loved the town. It even smelled good there," said Tracy Hanchett of Billings, Mont.
Hanchett, 31, was visiting Los Angeles with her mother, Mary, for the first time.
"I saw the ocean and Disneyland," she said. "It was crowded there because of the (theme park's) 50th anniversary. But I wanted to see the happiest place on earth. It was fun. It's so nice here. I almost want to tell everyone in Billings to move here."
Friends Tanja Winkelmann and Andrea Jeising, of Germany, said they had visited Los Angeles before, but wanted to return to some favorite spots such as Hollywood and the Sunset Strip.
Their 10-day trip included visits to the beach -- a luxury, they said, because it was 33 degrees Fahrenheit in Germany.
"You can head to the beach, or you can check out Disneyland," said Winkelmann, 29. "It's just all fun."
Kyser noted that LA Inc.'s ad campaign -- dubbed "See My L.A." and modeled after the "I Love New York" advertising effort -- is running in other cities and appears to be paying off.
"Our largest number of tourists come from the Bay Area," Kyser said. "The economy up there is doing well, and they come down here to get sun and relax."
Maria Elena Durazo of UNITE HERE, the union that represents hotel and restaurant workers, said the improving tourism industry is welcome news for the employment outlook.
"Tourism helps create 285,000 jobs -- from the people you see serving you in restaurants and hotels, to those who work behind the scenes to make sure you have a good visit," Durazo said.
And Bonnie Herman of the Valley Industry and Commerce Association said that any boosts from the tourism business ripple throughout the city.
"It is not just downtown and Los Angeles that benefit," Herman said. "Look at the Valley and its tourist industry that is growing. Just in the Universal City area alone, we are having tremendous growth."
Collins noted that many of the San Fernando Valley tourism dollars come from those traveling in-state, either from San Francisco or the San Diego areas.
"These are folks who aren't looking to stay downtown or near the airport," Collins said. "They want to drive around and they end up staying in the Valley because it is convenient to where they want to travel."
Staff writer Susan Abram contributed to this story.
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