After losing billions, cities hopeful pandemic recovery will bring back tourists

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Posted at 5:32 AM, Mar 22, 2021

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Tourists are the lifeblood of San Diego’s economy. When the industry came to a halt last year, the city lost billions in visitor spending dollars.

“I'm very passionate about San Diego; I love my city so much," said Erik Arreaga, a freelance comic book illustrator. "So when I see what's going on through this pandemic, it really hurts me.”

For Arreaga, the pandemic broke a tradition he began in 1991.

“You have Comic-Cons all over the world, but there’s nothing like San Diego Comic-Con. It’s in a world all on its own," Arreaga said. “Five days of people coming together from all over the world, enjoying pop culture and being nerds.”

Arreaga has become a go-to source for convention-goers traveling to San Diego. He created the Facebook page San Diego Comic Con, which now has over 33,000 members.

“People wanted to know, how do I go? That was just like the standard; how do I get a ticket?”

Each year before the convention, he takes followers on a live-streamed tour, showing people the layout outside the San Diego Convention Center and Downtown San Diego.

And while the pandemic forced Comic-Con 2020 to go virtual, Arreaga still went ahead with the annual tradition.

“It wasn’t until I started that it hit me that it wasn’t happening. And it hurt," Arreaga said. "It was really an awakening of what this pandemic really did.”

Organizers recently announced Comic-Con 2021 has been canceled.

"It's already difficult to have a business in downtown San Diego," Arreaga said. “[Comic-Con is] the shot to the arm that boosts them and really makes up for the rest of the year.”

“It's a big deal. It's a money, money-making week for all of us," said Jenna Nguyen, a professional makeup artist.

Nguyen uses her craft to bring characters to life and is typically booked the entire week of Comic-Con.

Her love of comic books began at a young age.

“Growing up with all boys, we'd watch a lot of animations, cartoons, read a lot of comic books," Nguyen said.

Feeling like an outcast growing up, she related to characters on the page. A virtual convention means losing both income and connection.

“It's a way for people I feel, to express themselves, to be who they want to be or have more confidence," Nguyen said. “It’s pretty much a nerd unite."

Before the pandemic, 2020 Comic-Con was forecasted to generate $166 million in the region.

The San Diego Tourism Authority (SDTA) says overall, the region lost $6.6 billion in visitor spending and $10.9 billion in economic impact between March and December of 2020. They say visitor spending levels dropped close to where the city was 20 years ago.

SDTA has launched a campaign to bring tourists back to the region. The campaigns are currently running in California and Arizona and will expand into other markets further along in the pandemic recovery.

Arreaga is looking forward to a smaller Comic-Con being planned for later in the year but is hopeful they can have the larger event next year as people worldwide get vaccinated.

“I can already hear it, that announcement: 'Welcome to Comic-Con 2022.' I think that’s going to be the greatest feeling in the world,” Arreaga said.