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Caitlin Johnson, Spring 2014

Preserving and promoting: San Diego’s history and character attract locals and tourists

The Downtown San Diego skyline

The USS Midway is docked in front of the towering Downtown San Diego buildings. Millions of tourists flock to the region each year to experience ‘America’s Finest City.’ Aerial photo by Caitlin Johnson.

A recent campaign by tourism officials in San Diego will put $23 million toward enticing more vacationers to come to the jewel of the West Coast through TV and print advertising. More visitors equal more dollars spent, which naturally boosts the surrounding economy. A portion of the funds also goes toward promoting the city’s unique historical heritage and culture.

Candice Eley, public relations manager for the San Diego Tourism Authority, said the campaign aims to bring in visitors from across the nation by drawing interest to all San Diego has to offer.

“The goal with everything we do at the San Diego Tourism Authority is to drive visitors to San Diego,” Eley said. “So our marketing campaign is really based on trying to get people to think of San Diego when they’re planning their vacations for the upcoming year.”

The campaign is funded by SDTA’s parent company, the Tourism Marketing District, which is a nonprofit organization created by the City of San Diego in 2008 to specifically promote tourism within the region. Funds for marketing come from revenue as a result of a partnership between the TMD and 183 local hotels.

Tourism brings revenue

More outreach means more visitors to the city. As a premier vacation destination, San Diego’s economy is directly affected by tourism. It creates employment opportunities and generates direct revenue from visitor spending. According to Eley, more than 165,000 of the county’s residents are employed in the hospitality industry–one out of eight workers. Purchases by visitors, such as lodging, dining and shopping, are all funneled back into local businesses.

“It really has a spillover benefit, not just naturally to hotels and big attractions like the zoo and SeaWorld, but even into our neighborhoods,” Eley said. “More and more people when they travel … want to get out into the neighborhood and kind of discover the real character of San Diego.”

Gaslamp Quarter, Downtown San Diego

Downtown San Diego’s nightlife is a main driver of consumerism in the city. The historic Gaslamp Quarter is still a popular destination for locals and tourists, just as it was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Photo by Caitlin Johnson.

This character is what separates San Diego from other popular destinations along the West Coast. Louise Torio lives in Sherman Heights, a neighborhood just outside of Downtown San Diego that has been in existence since the late 1800s. She runs a side business called Historic San Diego and gives walking tours of the area. She said heritage tourism is important for San Diego’s economy.

“If you’re a tourist, you may want to stay an extra day so you can see more than just Shamu when you come here,” Torio said. “The economic benefit ripples out, which is a really important thing that a lot of people don’t understand.”

Longer stays in the city mean more money spent at local businesses. Torio said restoring historic districts also creates jobs and draws visitors. She explained how revitalizing a historic neighborhood not only encourages outside tourism, but draws permanent residents to the area as well.

“As the neighborhood has gotten better and better, it’s gotten safer. It’s gotten more people to come back to the neighborhood and own buildings instead of having absentee landlords, so you’ve got an evolution of a neighborhood,” Torio said.

Culture defines San Diego’s character

Neighborhoods such as Sherman Heights create character, and San Diego’s character is a significant part of what makes it unique. Its proximity to the southern border also allows it to closely share Mexico’s rich heritage — Hispanics and Latinos make up 32 percent of the county’s residential population. Many of Mexico’s legacies have been brought over throughout the years, and acknowledging them is still important to residents and visitors alike.

Adobe Chapel in Old Town San Diego

The Adobe Chapel in Old Town San Diego was converted from a home to a church in 1858 by Don José Aguirre. The chapel, maintained by the Save Our Heritage Organisation, is still used today as a place for locals to gather and pray. Photo by Caitlin Johnson.

Cultural events also play a role in attracting visitors. Old Town is a popular everyday tourist destination, but during various holidays it becomes a central hub where long-standing traditions are shared and celebrated.

Ashley Christensen is the events and outreach coordinator for the Save Our Heritage Organisation. According to her, last November’s two-day Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) celebration drew 50,000 local and out-of-town visitors to Old Town and its surrounding small businesses. The event is a long-standing tradition in Mexico, where those who have died are remembered and honored. In Old Town, the pinnacle of the festival is the candlelit procession that snakes its way down the length of San Diego Avenue and ends in the El Campo Santo Cemetery.

“Last year I got to watch the procession go by,” Christensen said. “It was amazing, just jam-packed with people and their candles … it was just so cool to see people getting it. And a lot of people just stumbled onto it.”

San Diego’s history, beyond the books

El Cortez Apartment Hotel

The El Cortez Apartment Hotel. Opened in 1927, what once was a popular hotel has been transformed into a residential condominium building. Past visitors to the hotel include former U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower and famous singer Elvis Presley. Photo by Caitlin Johnson.

Many historic landmarks hide in plain sight and tell a story much deeper than even most residents know. The city’s rich history dates back to the late 1700s, and evidence of this time long passed can still be found if tourists know where to look. Many structures built decades ago still stand among the skyscrapers and freeways today, overshadowed but not forgotten.

Janet O’Dea is co-creator of the Mission Hills Historic District and a former board member for the Save Our Heritage Organisation. She said historic tourism is just as important for locals as it is for attracting tourists to San Diego.

“A sense of place is really important,” O’Dea said. “It’s really about creating a sense of identity and having meaning for a longer term, not just for the generation but for multiple generations and sharing that together.”

However, maintaining historic sites is not an easy task. Most operations in San Diego are independent nonprofits, and restoration and revitalization of areas and structures costs quite a bit of money and manpower.

“(Preservationists) do understand the value of tourism as far as helping to retain these historic places,” O’Dea said. “They have the understanding that the historic place may not exist if it’s not recognized as a site where people want to go. Without that recognition and shining the light on it, who would ever know?”

MULTIMEDIA: Preservationists work to promote historic tourism

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