|By Abby Sewell, Los Angeles
TimesMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Jan. 05, 2011--When it comes to Los Angeles tourism, the Land Down Under is showing up on top these days.
Australia became the No. 1 feeder market for overseas tourists to Los Angeles in 2010, surpassing Britain and Japan, according to statistics released Tuesday by LA Inc., the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The Aussies were part of a larger rebound of L.A.'s tourist industry. Last year saw the number of visitors and level of tourism spending return to pre-recession levels after a significant dip in 2009.
"It really shows that we have turned the corner on the road to recovery after these very difficult economic times," said Mark Liberman, LA Inc. president and chief executive.
The number of overnight visitors to the city last year rose nearly 8% to 25.7 million, approaching the 2007 peak of 25.9 million, according to an analysis by CIC Research, based in San Diego. In 2009, the figure had dropped to 23.8 million. Tourism spending was also up, by 10.4% in 2010 to $13.1 billion, although not back to the peak of $14.2 billion in 2007.
Visitors from abroad were a key part of the uptick. "The international overseas visitors obviously have a tendency of staying longer and spending more," Liberman said.
International visitors accounted for about 21% of the total visits and more than one-third of the tourist spending for the year.
Australia became the top overseas feeder market for Los Angeles, with 339,000 Aussies making the trip. (In terms of overall international visits, Mexico and Canada beat out the overseas markets, with more than 1.5 million visitors coming from Mexico and 561,000 from Canada.)
China and South Korea also saw significant growth in the number of tourists they sent to L.A., with an increase of 80% for China and 54% for South Korea.
There are logistical reasons for the influx of Australians to Los Angeles. A strong Australian dollar brought more Aussies to the states overall, and LAX is the primary point of entry, said Wally Mariani, senior executive vice president for the Americas and Pacific for Australia's Qantas Airways.
The airline is the busiest foreign carrier at LAX, flying at least 1 million passengers between Los Angeles and Australia in 2010.
"I think the primary change this year versus a couple years ago is the strength of the Australian versus the American dollar," Mariani said. Australians "have always wanted to visit America. It's always been one of the primary destinations."
And now there is increased capacity to shuttle Australians to Southern California. Liberman noted that in 2010, airlines added a total of 8,200 weekly seats from Australia to Los Angeles.
Australian visitors said L.A. also has a special pull for a nation where people grew up on Hollywood movies and American television.
Australian Madeline Page, 22, who is spending a year in Bozeman, Mont., working as an au pair, visited California with her brother in December and spent three days in Los Angeles. They walked the Santa Monica Pier, found compatriot Hugh Jackman's footprints at Grauman's Chinese Theatre, and took a bus tour of celebrities' houses.
"Living in Australia, we do grow up watching a lot of American television, so you see a lot of TV shows that are from" Los Angeles, said Page, who liked Santa Monica Beach and her glimpse of Michael Jackson's house. "So it's great to see that in real life." She said she was less fond of the gritty atmosphere in Venice, where she stayed on the visit.
Page also noted that the strength of the Australian dollar is a plus. "It's cheaper to buy Australian wines in America than it is in Australia," she said.
For recent Australian visitor Adam Hollingsworth of Melbourne, Los Angeles was not the purpose of his trip to the U.S., but it ended up being his favorite part.
Hollingsworth visited L.A. last month as part of a trip to Las Vegas he gave himself as a 30th birthday present. Like many Australian tourists to the U.S., he flew into and out of LAX and spent several days in L.A. at both ends of the trip.
He checked out Universal Studios, got a picture of the Hollywood sign and drove to Hawkins House of Burgers in Watts to experience authentically hearty American fare. Between the burgers and the people he met, Hollingsworth raved about the city in a phone interview from Melbourne.
"Next time, I'm going to stay in L.A. a lot longer -- I'd probably make it the focal point of my trip because I had such a good time," he said. "... I never thought I'd like anywhere more than New York, but I have to say, Los Angeles is somewhere I think I could live."
The cultural exchange goes both ways. This month, Los Angeles will be one of eight U.S. cities hosting G'Day USA, an annual week of events intended to showcase Australian business and culture. In Los Angeles, the events run Jan. 17-22.
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