By Hugo Martín
April 23, 2014, 5:00 a.m.
In the battle for tourists, Los Angeles is losing ground to rivals Orlando, Fla., New York, and Chicago.
L.A. County has broken its own record for annual visitors three years in a row — thanks to a rebounding economy, sunny California weather and popular tourist attractions.
But L.A.'s tourist numbers are not growing fast enough to keep up with the nation's top three destinations, primarily because the city lacks enough hotel rooms to host more tourists.
"We have an awful lot of things that are in our favor," said Robert Kleinhenz, chief economist at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.
"But one big constraint I've seen in the last several years is that we don't have enough rooms in the vicinity of the convention center."
Kleinhenz and tourist industry officials closely follow visitation numbers for good reason.
Visitors to Los Angeles County booked 26.6 million room nights in 2012, spent about $16.5 billion and supported 324,000 jobs in the region, according to the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board.
Tourism has surged nationwide, thanks to a recovering U.S. economy and an influx of middle-class foreign travelers, particularly from China, Brazil, Japan and Australia.
Tourist numbers are rising especially fast in Chicago, New York and Orlando — so fast that those cities have recently revised their tourist forecasts up for the next few years. Tourism leaders in those cities attribute the growth to new efforts to promote their cities abroad, an improving economy, and construction of new hotels to accommodate visitors.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel recently predicted Chicago would host 55 million annual visitors by 2020, up from a previous forecast of 50 million.
"What we are seeing is that there is a rising tide," said Don Welsh, president and chief executive of Choose Chicago, the city's tourism bureau.
Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has predicted that the city would reach its goal of 55 million visitors in 2014, one year ahead of the city's previous forecast.
For its part, Los Angeles has set a goal of 50 million visitors a year by 2020, said Ernest Wooden Jr., chief executive and president of the Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board.
Although Los Angeles has enjoyed a minor hotel construction boom in the last few years, Wooden said it is not enough.
In addition to the hotels already under construction or in planning, Los Angeles needs 2,000 to 3,000 hotel rooms within walking distance of the downtown convention center, he said.
"The barrier is having land in downtown that can be used for hotels," Wooden said. "The city is trying to encourage hotel development."
But the Anschutz Entertainment Group, the media giant that manages the convention center and owns Staples Center, said hotels should be cautious about building too fast.
"We are pleased to see over 3,000 new downtown hotel rooms in the pipeline, as continued growth in the supply of hotels is needed to support convention business," said Ted Tanner, AEG's executive vice president for real estate and development. "However, it is important to be mindful of the pace at which new hotels are built, as the risk of a failed project increases if new inventory comes on-line faster than it can be absorbed into the market."
Los Angeles County is home to nearly 97,000 hotel rooms, but only 4,875 are within a mile of the convention center. The rest are in outlying areas like Pasadena, Santa Monica and Long Beach.
By comparison, Orlando has 7,695 rooms within a mile of its Orange County Convention Center, and New York has nearly 30,000 within a mile of the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, according to those cities. Chicago has 1,539 rooms within a mile of its McCormick Place Convention Center but has 5,024 within two miles.
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