Living in somebody's vacation

By Danny King
Danny KingThe first time I saw a line of costumed people in front of the hulking, hangar-like structure next to my kids' new elementary school in a not-so-well-scrubbed stretch of Hollywood, it was last September, and I wondered if maybe Halloween had come about a month early.

Soon enough, however, I realized that the building was Sunset Bronson studios, where the game show "Let's Make a Deal" is taped, and people from all over the city, country, possibly the world, were making a pilgrimage of sorts to win a little money and maybe get their 15 minutes of fame. If that meant standing in line in matching insect outfits within eyeshot of bemused kids and their parents, so be it.

"All the world's indeed a stage, and we are merely players."

The line, wailed by those wonderful Canadian philosophers Rush, was co-opted from a monologue in Shakespeare's "As You Like It" and might best describe what it's like to reside in some of this country's most-visited cities.

Live in places like New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco (cities in which various Travel Weekly writers make their homes) and there's no getting around it. For example, if you're a New Yorker hustling crosstown to make a subway or hail a cab in midtown, you're going to be battling for sidewalk space with throngs of tourists heading to, from or through Times Square.

Or, in the case of an Angeleno, the driver of that late-model Toyota that came to a dead stop in the center lane on Hollywood Boulevard probably wasn't distracted because she was texting but because she got her first glimpse of the Chinese Theatre or Capitol Records building.

And even the proudest San Franciscans would have to admit that not even a cool, stiff breeze off the Pacific coast or the Bay can erase the odor of brake dust rising from the line of cars traversing down the squiggly section of San Francisco's Lombard Street.

The numbers don't lie. New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles all set annual tourism visitation records in 2012, combining to bring in almost 135 million overnight visitors, according to those cities' respective tourism bureaus.

As for 2013, New York was projected to beat its record by 1.6 million visitors and attract 54.3 million, while Las Vegas' numbers through November were about even with 2012's, at 36.7 million, through those 11 months. And Los Angeles tourism officials said earlier this month that the city beat its 2012 record by 800,000 to bring its 2013 total to 42.2 million.

Moreover, in the age where "experiential" is one of travel's hottest buzzwords, the idea of "living like a local" is pushed more than ever (hence the brand of travel guidebooks NFT, or "Not For Tourists"). Speaking at the Boutique & Lifestyle Lodging Association conference in Los Angeles in October, Commune Hotels & Resorts CEO Niki Leondakis defined a good hotel concierge as someone who knows "those 10 things only a local would know."

That means it's not all about amusement parks, museums and historical sites. And it's no longer necessarily the Hawaiian guy strumming the ukulele, the Bostonian driving the Duck Tour boat or the (likely transplanted) L.A.-area tour guide whom visitors are going to remember when thinking back on their most recent trip.

The fact that people worldwide are delving into U.S. culture hook, line and sinker means visitors are looking to get beyond the obvious and the cliche.

"Vampires, hip-hop and all the rest," Swedish economist Kjell Nordstrom said in his keynote speech at the International Luxury Travel Market conference in Cannes, France, last month. "The U.S. is an idea. Anyone on this planet can become an American just by plugging in."

Which means, like it or not, we're all part of the show, folks.

Granted, there was a time when I was younger, less mature and not attuned to the travel industry and its broader impact on things that the idea of being part of the parade seemed something of an indignity. Tourists were to be accepted and tolerated, but not necessarily embraced.

Sure, I could see the Golden Gate Bridge from my rooftop, but wow! my tips took a hit last night because of that large party of folks from across the pond.

And, yeah, it's 72 degrees and sunny in December, but if another guy with out-of-state plates cuts me off, I'm going to succumb to road rage.

But it's funny how a terrorist attack, a recession, a few lean years and a family to raise can put an end to such thoughts.

Travel analysts have referred to the oughts as "the Lost Decade" for anyone involved with U.S. tourism, and the numbers bear them out. Between 2000 and 2010, the U.S. share of the long-haul travel market fell from 17% to 12%, cutting visitor spending from overseas travelers by an aggregate $606 billion, according to the U.S. Travel Association.

And that spending dip didn't discriminate.

The good news, of course, is that the combination of growing global wealth and a gradual loosening and speeding up of visa processing is reversing that trend. In 2012, the U.S. attracted 67 million international visitors, which was up 7% from a year earlier and marked more than a 50% jump from 2003, the year things bottomed out.

The numbers for 2012 included double-digit percentage jumps for visitors from Japan, Brazil and Argentina and a 35% surge from China, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. And those total numbers are expected to continue rising at about 4% a year through at least 2018.

"Keep your eye on the United States of America," Nordstrom said in France last month. "They are very different from the rest of the world. They will be back with a vengeance."

And that puts us U.S. city dwellers in a love-it-or-leave-it position as more overseas travelers exchange their hard-earned euros, yuan and pesos for the opportunity to get a first-hand look at what makes our cities sizzle.

Sure, for some, it might be reason enough to move someplace farther off the beaten path and into a more "locals only" way of life. But for others, it's a realization that what a lot of people call their spring break, summer vacation or winter excursion, we call home. And maybe we're a little bit luckier for it.

For those L.A. kids attending school next to the building with the line of game show contestants, it's a lesson that's really never too early to learn.

Contact Danny King at dking@travelweekly.com and follow him on Twitter. 
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