Here in San Diego, the weather is excellent, the beaches some of the finest, and at least for the moment, the dollar is comparatively weak (though strengthening): All good reasons for foreign visitors to descend upon the city this summer.
To get an idea of just how many, the Department of Commerce and Office of Travel and Tourism Industries have a few numbers. In 2007, more than 645,000 international visitors passed through San Diego; the annual total — including both United States and non–United States residents — is around 32 million. Last year, 117,000 of the international visitors were from the United Kingdom, 49,000 from Germany, 88,300 from Japan, and 43,240 from Australia and New Zealand. The 2008 numbers have not yet been crunched.
According to D.K. Shifflet & Associates LTD, says the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau’s San Diego County Travel and Tourism Forecast for 2008, San Diego is a top-five United States travel destination. Real Simple magazine’s editor, Kris Connell, named it the best family-friendly destination last year, and Fodor’s (of travel-guide fame) bills it on its website as having “an exploding culinary scene and big-city nightlife, with a side of beach bum mixed in.”
Matthias, who is 23 and traveling from London by way of Austria, has enjoyed San Diego more than many of the other destinations he has been during his trip, especially Los Angeles. He sips from a small cup of coffee at Java Jones, a café in the East Village a few blocks from the Lucky D’s hostel where he is staying.
Lucky D’s, which, unlike Hostelling International, allows alcohol on its premises, looks not unlike a college dorm. Doors, painted off-white, are individually numbered; handmade magazine-collage art hangs on the wall, and patrons traipse the carpeted hallways in board shorts and flip-flops, chattering with one another.
At Java Jones, things are a bit quieter.
“I think [San Diego has] got a lot of charm,” he says. “San Francisco’s also nice, but I don’t know, for some reason I just like San Diego better. Las Vegas was just a very different place. It’s all about gambling and money and girls and everything. Here, it’s more beautiful, in my opinion. I love the sea, so this is a city by the sea; that’s also very appealing to me. I really like San Diego.”
Compared to Los Angeles, some international travelers prefer San Diego.
“I expected more [from Los Angeles], actually,” says Bapsi, a soft-spoken 27-year-old from Vienna, Austria, as she sits outside on the Ocean Beach International Hostel’s back patio during some travel downtime.
Bapsi and her friend Katherine, who has just started work at the hostel “doing the beds and toilets,” in addition to staying there, are the only two sitting in the cozy enclosure, which is made from a skeleton frame of tubing and waterproof tarps. The hostel’s rates range from $17 to $24 a night.
“[I expected] more glamour [in Los Angeles],” Bapsi elaborates. “[It was] dirty, actually. I didn’t expect it.”
Katherine, who is 26 and from Germany, weighs in as well.
“Between L.A. and San Diego, I think San Diego is a real city,” she explains. “In L.A., you go to Santa Monica and that’s a little city, and then you go to Venice Beach and it’s quite different, and Hollywood is another story. And here I think there’s a real city. It’s much nicer; it’s just cleaner compared to the other…like Hollywood, downtown L.A., that’s just…”
She makes a noise of disgust.
Ayala, who is 26 and visiting from Israel, liked Los Angeles but found that the hype it inspires is just that — hype.
“I’ve been to L.A. four years ago, and I have to say I expected much of L.A. and I think San Diego is nicer,” she says, taking a breather from sightseeing at the San Diego International Visitor Information Center in downtown.
The visitors’ center, which is just across the street from the USS Midway, is bustling in the early afternoon. Light pours in through the windows as several staff members and volunteers assist the gathering of out-of-towners who have come to purchase tickets and receive destination advice.
Ayala is in San Diego for a weekend trip with her friend Natalia, who is 21 and from Brazil. The two of them are staying at the Comfort Inn on Harbor Drive, paying $250 for two of their three nights and $84 for their final day in San Diego. Both are pharmacy students studying abroad in Yuma, Arizona.
“In L.A. you expect it to be, I don’t know, Hollywood and amazing and the beach and all, but it was.…”
She trails off.
“I guess because they make such a big deal out of it in movies and movie shows then you just expect more,” she continues. “It’s really nice, I liked L.A.… I guess I expected more, and San Diego is more beautiful than L.A.”
Some, no matter their impressions of Los Angeles, enjoyed themselves. Jennifer, who is 22 and from Limerick, Ireland, ended up making lemonade out of lemons when she and her friend ended up in a sub-par hostel in a run-down part of Los Angeles.
“We had to go up about a million steps to get into the dorm, and it was tiny,” she says from her seat in the dining area of Hostelling International’s Point Loma location. “It was maybe 10 feet by 15, I don’t know how many feet, but it was really small. There were six bunk beds in it, no air conditioning, nothing. When I went into the shower, it was kind of grimy, [and] we pretty much had to wear flip-flops the whole time because we couldn’t do anything else.”
Hostelling International Point Loma looks not unlike someone’s very large house. The outside is painted a cheery cherry red, and indoors, round tables sit adjacent to an airy, open kitchen where guests can cook and store their food. The dorm-style and private rooms, which range in price from $17 to $69 depending, are brightly colored and full of light, with beds dressed in patterned sheets.