Tourism matters. It is vital to our economy, creates jobs and generates badly needed tax revenue that helps provide basic services our community needs. L.A.’s unique, beautiful and endlessly entertaining city drew in a record 41.4 million total visitors last year, and we forecast that will grow to 42 million this year.

But make no mistake. The world is nipping at our heels. We must work relentlessly and invest in ensuring that Los Angeles has the very best to offer.

As the economic recovery struggles to create jobs, tourism remains a bright spot – visitors to Los Angeles spent $16.5 billion in 2012, resulting in $30.5 billion in economic benefit. Tourism led nearly every sector, creating 10,000 jobs and supporting 324,000 total jobs in Los Angeles County. The hotel room tax contributed $158 million to the city’s general fund. That is equivalent to the cost of 1,702 police officers or 1,192 firefighters or 450 miles of street paving.

If we make the necessary investments, Los Angeles can reach 50 million visitors by 2020. That would mean $44.5 billion in economic impact, a $14 billion increase over today’s impact; $635 million in hotel tax revenue to the city, a $213 million increase; and 392,000 jobs directly supported by tourism in the county, 68,000 more than we have today.

We need to focus like a laser on China, attract new and bigger hotels, continue to invest in infrastructure and ramp up our level of service.

China is now the driving force behind the growth of tourism. In what is truly one of the world’s success stories, the Chinese people are enjoying an unprecedented increase in standard of living, enabling an exponential growth in their travel.

Los Angeles is one of their top destinations. We have built a uniquely strong relationship with China, and we cannot afford to lose the opportunities that it presents.

I took part in a rare face-to-face meeting May 28 with China’s President Xi Jinping, together with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, as part of the L.A. trade mission. The president, the mayor and I discussed the strong bonds of trust, friendship and business partnership that have developed between Los Angeles and China. Xi referred to Los Angeles as the “epicenter” of the U.S.-China relationship.

Xi told me he felt that tourism was absolutely crucial to the future of his nation. He laid out his vision of the central role that tourism plays both for developing economic strength and for building friendships across the world.

I could not agree more. That is why we must continue to invest and build upon our close ties with China. In 2006, Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board and Villaraigosa opened the first travel and tourism office for a U.S. city ever licensed to operate in China. This spring, we cut the ribbon on the second Los Angeles Tourism Office in China.

China has become L.A.’s No. 1 overseas visitor market, setting a record with 460,000 Chinese visitors last year, a 36 percent increase from 2011. We expect 100,000 more international visitors to Los Angeles this year, 70 percent of whom will be from China.

More visitors

To get to 50 million visitors, we also must bring more high-quality hotel rooms to Los Angeles. Average hotel occupancy in the county is nearly 80 percent, which means we are at maximum capacity for a large part of the year. To be able to absorb increased visitor demand, we need about 5,200 more rooms.

We also need to secure additional international air service to the Los Angeles International Airport. The $4 billion airport modernization plan and new Tom Bradley International Terminal opening this year mean LAX will be able to accommodate more next-generation jumbo jets like the A380 than any other airport in the United States. This will offer Los Angeles a critical competitive advantage, especially faced with competition from New York, which is moving aggressively to gain more international visitors and gain ground with Chinese travelers.

We need to ramp up our level of service for visitors. Today’s leading destinations are those with the best service. New York’s tourism industry came back from the devastating effects of 9/11 with a welcoming, service-oriented approach to visitors. Today, New York has more international visitors than any other city in the country. Global travelers need to see Los Angeles embrace a culture of tourism, and roll out the red carpet at our airport, taxis, shops, restaurants, hotels and cultural institutions.

The smiles, hospitality and helpfulness of a people are among the strongest factors that build a destination’s reputation and keep visitors coming back.

When tourism grows, Angelenos benefit. That’s the power of tourism. The world wants to come to Los Angeles for our gorgeous scenery, best-in-the-world climate and endless entertainment. We must come together as a community and support the initiatives we need to get them here.

Ernest Wooden Jr. is the president and chief executive of the Los Angeles Tourism and Convention Board.

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