San Diego summer vacation 2021: What Arizonans can expect as California looks to reopen

Melissa Yeager
Arizona Republic

After months of wavering between tightening and loosening travel restrictions intended to keep the coronavirus from spreading, businesses in San Diego and the rest of California are cautiously optimistic as the days tick toward June 15, the date Gov. Gavin Newsom has set to determine whether the state will fully reopen.

Most see reopening as a large step toward reviving a tourism industry greatly hurt by the uncertainty of ever-changing COVID-19 restrictions.

As tourists start returning to southern California, some San Diego business owners are looking toward the annual summer migration of Arizonans to their sunny beaches and temperate climate as a bellwether of recovery.

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'Arizona is kind of that leading indicator for us'

Elvin Lai is the fourth generation of his family to own the Ocean Park Inn in San Diego.  His grandfather and great-grandfather purchased the property together in 1967.

It's been a difficult year navigating all the unexpected ways the pandemic has affected his business. 

"We're not a franchise. We're not a big corporation with multiple hotels. We're one property, one family, and all of our heart and soul and love and attention is in this one property," he said.

After a $8 million dollar renovation, Ocean Park Inn owner Elvin Lai is anxiously waiting for Arizona plates to return to his inn's parking lot.

Lai had a renovation in the works for the 71-room beachfront inn when the pandemic hit. He had planned to complete the work in phases over several years while keeping the hotel open, but once the pandemic hit, he decided to take advantage of the down time.

He initially closed the hotel between March 17 and June 2, 2020, because travel restrictions caused occupancy to plummet. Then he closed a second time, on Oct. 1, because finding building supplies and crews for the renovation became unpredictable, making it hard to figure out what parts of the hotel he could have open.

He reopened in March to reveal the $8 million renovations and is nervously wondering  what the summer months will hold for his investment.

"Arizona is kind of that leading indicator for us,"  Lai said. "Our great loyal customers are majority from Arizona and we're starting to see people come back." 

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'Our customers come back year after year from Arizona'

Coco Tihanyi has owned Surf Diva Surf School in La Jolla with her twin sister Izzy for 25 years, employing 35 seasonal employees ranging from instructors to retail staff.

She’s feeling optimistic about the summer as she’s seeing her staff return to work and bookings by regular customers, many from Arizona, start to increase. 

Izzy and Coco Tihanyi are twin sister and own Surf Diva Surf School in La Jolla, Calif. After an unpredictable year, they're starting to see employees return as well as their regular customers from Arizona.

“Our customers come back year after year from Arizona and having them come back to see us and be with us — it's just really great,” she said.

George Allen, director of sales and marketing for Noble House Hotels & Resorts, said things have been improving day by day. The company owns San Diego Mission Bay Resort and L'Auberge Del Mar, both of which have undergone renovations during the pandemic. 

"If I was going to make one recommendation to anybody living in the Phoenix or Scottsdale surrounding areas who want to come to the coast, I would book soon because our phones are ringing off the hook," Allen said, adding that they are hiring two additional reservation agents to keep up with demand. 

Allen said Arizona is typically one of the resorts' top markets for summer visitors. That's a trend California tourism officials see statewide. 

“It’s one of our top Western feeder markets and, frankly, a top market for us nationally,” said Caroline Beteta, president and CEO for Visit California, which promotes tourism to the state.

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The uptick in reservations is a welcome sign for an industry craving some stability.

As COVID-19 cases climbed in California, the state instituted a tiered system of restrictions. If cases and ICU bed use increased, more restrictions took effect. If those measures decreased, the restrictions would ease.

The hospitality industry was caught in the middle.

“I think the toughest part for us has been the sort of start, stop, start, stop with the restrictions,” Allen said.

Allen said the uncertainty greatly affected how many staff Noble House could retain. For instance, he said the change from when indoor dining was allowed to when it was not and outdoor dining capacity was limited to 50% was devastating economically and emotionally.

“That changes your team member count tremendously. So to try and bring people in for work and then have to furlough them again, and then bring them back and furlough them, it’s tough. It’s tough emotionally,” Allen said.

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'People have missed California'

With vaccination rates increasing and COVID-19 case numbers falling, California is moving toward a June 15 target to fully reopen.

Gov. Newsom has said he’ll roll back restrictions on two conditions. First, if there’s enough vaccine for everyone 16 and older who wants it. And second, if case numbers and hospitalizations remain low.

Visitors flock to the beach in Del Mar, California.

Those in San Diego's restaurant and lodging industries are anxiously eyeing that date.

A recently prepared report for Visit California found that tourism spending in the state dropped to $65.1 billion in 2020, a level not seen since 1996. In 2019, tourism spending topped $144 billion statewide.

Visit California doesn’t expect tourism spending to rebound to those 2019 levels until 2023.

The state is rolling out marketing campaigns nationwide and starting to get encouraging responses. 

“It is looking good in terms of the demand factor. People have missed California,” Beteta said.

Bring a mask: 'We're just trying to stay compliant" 

With a full reopening still ahead, California travel restrictions are already dramatically different than they were a year ago. 

In San Diego, indoor dining is allowed at 50% of capacity or 200 people, whichever is fewer. Museums, aquariums, zoos and movie theaters are operating at 50% capacity. 

San Diego Padres fans can attend games at Petco Park. They have a choice of sitting in socially distanced areas with a distance of 6 feet between pods of fans or in sections  designated for fans who can show proof of full vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.

But even as some things return to normal, other differences will remain. 

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Surf Diva Surf School in La Jolla now offers private group lessons to pods of people traveling together.

Like many businesses, Surf Diva Surf School has had to make changes in response to the virus. It now offers individual lessons. Group lessons are for pods of people traveling together.

It's something they plan to keep doing for the time being. 

"I think as a small business owner we've always had to be resilient and flexible in terms of the weather, the economy," Tihanyi said. "This has been an incredibly huge challenge to be flexible to change how we operate and different protocols." 

Lai urges Arizonans to have patience with lingering restrictions, such as mask requirements, that might be different than in their hometowns. 

"We're not trying to make a political statement," he said. "We're just trying to stay compliant so we can stay open."

You can connect with Arizona Republic Consumer Travel Reporter Melissa Yeager through email at melissa.yeager@azcentral.com. You can also follow her on Twitter and Instagram

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