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Visitors from abroad power California’s biggest export

By Maurice Robie | 5 min.

Though it seems counterintuitive to designate tourism as an export, the U.S. Department of Commerce considers international visitor spending in the U.S. to be just that. Call it what you like, visitors to California from other countries account for a significant share of the state’s multifaceted economy.

From San Diego to Sonoma, international visitors to California are highly valued customers. They spend more and stay longer. They help power the state economy and tax coffers with money that comes from outside the United States.


2018 International Visitors
2018 International Spend

The value of international spending far outpaces the second highest export, agriculture, which totaled $20.6 billion in 2017, the most recent data.

International visitor spending accounts for more than a fifth of all visitor spending in California, which, at $140.6 billion in 2018, generated $11.8 billion in state and local tax revenue and supported some 1.2 million tourism jobs.

Visit California has offices staffed by contract agencies in 13 countries outside the United States.

International Spend Chart 

California regions find their target markets

Different regions in the state target different countries based on what the research dictates regarding interests of visitors. Los Angeles Tourism focuses its marketing efforts in 15 international markets including (in order of visitation): Mexico, China, Canada, Australia, U.K., Japan, South Korea, France, Germany, Scandinavia, Middle East, and most recently, India, Spain, Italy & Southeast Asia. The first 10 international markets listed comprise 76% of total international spend in L.A. County.


"Attracting international travelers continues to be a top priority for the Los Angeles tourism industry. In fact, although international visitors represent 23% of our total overnight visitation, they represent 49% of our total overnight visitor spending."
Kathy Smiths Vice President of International Tourism at Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board


LAT continues expanding their international focus, investing significant marketing resources in emerging markets such as India and South Korea. Their strategy includes leveraging prominent international influencers and celebrities such as Korean actor Daniel Henney and Indian actresses Malaika Arora and Sonam Kapoor. “We’ve produced engaging digital content of their Los Angeles experiences which is designed to inspire their fans to follow their footsteps in the destination,” Smiths says.

Other more traditional efforts for LAT include hosting international media and travel professionals on familiarization trips to drive awareness, appreciation and demand for all that Los Angeles offers by creating first-hand experiences for these influential groups as well as regularly promoting L.A. to consumers and travel trade at prominent international trade shows.

Sonoma’s international focus

Birgitt Vaughan, Director of Global Media Relations of Sonoma County Tourism says “International travelers are very important to us for the reason that they stay longer and they are spending more money in our destination.”

Vaughan says SCT maintains public relations offices and trade offices in international markets though they look more to Europe than to Asia. Sonoma specifically focuses on the United Kingdom, Scandanavia, Australia, and Canada. “We are going into the markets themselves and either through events, travel agents, media-journalists, we organize trips actively pitching our destination.”

Chief Operating Officer of the San Diego Tourism Authority, Kerri Kapich, also says international travelers are an important market segment for them.

“They make up 11% of visitors, and what’s really important is those international travelers are coming from further away which tends to be longer haul visitors and they’re staying longer while they’re at the destination.”

She says they have a traditional public relations approach to attracting international visitors. “We reach out to credentialed journalists about stories on San Diego. We’ll pitch different stories like ‘What’s New in the Destination’ things that people are not aware of across targeted markets in internationally and then we also work with travel trade members, travel agents, tour operators, wholesalers putting together travel products that can be promoted for San Diego.”

Kapich also retains representation firms that are helping manage social media accounts in certain countries and they do paid consumer advertising in certain countries as well. “China and Canada are examples. We just wrapped up a campaign in Mexico, we do it in the UK and in Germany,” Kapich says.

“We basically have eight priority markets based on volume or international air service then we prioritize those markets.” Sometimes they work with media or tour operators and travel wholesalers; other times they go directly to consumers.

Kapich says international travelers appreciate the broad range of the city’s offerings, “They tend to do more activities, they are a highly valued customer.”

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