LOS ANGELES — Get ready. Those photo-snapping, beach-strolling, souvenir-shopping tourists are returning to California in greater numbers.
And they're expected to spend a bit more than in the past.
For the last year or so, the economic downturn has led many tourists to put off visits to the Golden State. But two weeks ago, the California Travel and Tourism Commission predicted a nearly 3 percent increase in visitors this year, followed by a 4 percent increase in 2011.
In even better news for recession-battered businesses, the visitors are expected to spend about $92 billion on food, lodging and other expenses, up 5 percent from 2009.
"It's been tough," Caroline Beteta, chief executive of the tourism commission, said during a news conference in Santa Monica. "But we really expect to take off in 2011."
The improved numbers are the result of pent-up demand to travel and improved consumer confidence in the economy, she said.
Theme park operators are also buoyed by the improved economy, saying attendance should rebound this summer from the slump a year earlier.
"It's the right time," said Universal Studios Hollywood President Larry Kurzweil. "We do see a rebound in attendance."
But not everyone is so confident. Carl Winston, director of San Diego State University's Hospitality and Tourism Management Program, said he would not be surprised to see a small increase in visitors, but he is skeptical about predictions of greater spending.
"The good news is they are getting more visitation," he said. "The bad news is they are not getting a price increase because no one is paying more."
He added that hotel occupancy rates statewide have dropped as much as 25 percent in the last two years.
The commission's projections are based on an analysis by Tourism Economics, a Wayne, Pa., firm that studies airport traffic, hotel occupancy numbers, historical trends, unemployment rates and national economic data to predict tourism trends.
Beteta said she also expects California to benefit from the Travel Promotion Act, which was signed into law by President Obama in March. The law charges most foreign visitors a $10 fee to help fund efforts to attract tourists to the U.S.
California and Florida are the two most popular destinations for foreign visitors. A big share of the increase in foreign visitors to California is expected to come from Australia, China and South Korea.
In Los Angeles, where tourism remains the city's top industry, the number of visitors is also expected to rise modestly.
"We are really optimistic about 2010," said Patti MacJennett, senior vice president for LA Inc., the city's convention and visitors bureau.
Still, most visitors will keep being frugal spenders during their stay, she said. "People will continue to be conservative."