Last week, I moderated a panel discussion on tourism in Orange County, hosted by the California Women’s Leadership Association, and was reminded of the importance that travel and tourism has on this region’s economic engine, broadening the state’s economic base, and driving recovery.

Unemployment in Orange County recently dropped to its lowest level in several years, highlighting the continued recovery from the recession. Leisure and hospitality businesses have helped drive that recovery in Orange County as more discretionary dollars became evident, more people visited local restaurants and hotels, and tourism flourished.

Tourism is an economic powerhouse for California. In 2012, 230 million visitors traveled throughout the Golden State, injecting $106 billion dollars in direct spending into the economy, supporting nearly one million jobs and generating $11.4 billion in local, state and federal tax revenues.

This industry is remarkably resilient, weathering tough economies better than many others. This resilience helped ensure a steady, reliable, much-needed tax revenue stream at both the local and state levels. It also helped improve the state’s global economic ranking. According to a new study by the Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy, California is poised to reclaim its title as the world’s eighth-largest economy, with tourism playing a key role in the rebound.

Similarly, tourism is an economic driver for Orange County. The industry directly supports more than 83,000 jobs and generates $590 million in state and local tax revenues. And that impact is felt by a large cross-section of industries – including accommodations, transportation, attractions, restaurants, retail and many others – who all benefit from increased tourism. The Orange County experience is irresistible to millions of people from across the country and around the world who visit to enjoy the natural beauty, beaches, amusement parks and experience a piece of the California lifestyle and dream.

Orange County’s 42 miles of coastline is home to the best beaches in the world, including Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and “Surf City USA.” OC Parks offers sprawling wilderness and nature parks, perfect for a scenic hike through Crystal Cove State Park or Limestone Canyon Park. And sports fans can cheer on the Angels at Angels Stadium or the Ducks at the Honda Center or Olympic Volleyball in Anaheim.

The county is also home to some of the world’s best art, science and music centers. Segerstrom Center for the Arts is Orange County’s largest non-profit arts organization and includes the renowned Pacific Symphony, the Philharmonic Society of Orange County and the Pacific Chorale.  Discovery Science Center just received the 2013 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, recognizing their innovation in state-of-art exhibits and dynamic community outreach programs.

Last year, Disneyland Resort became county’s largest employer, supporting a workforce of 25,000 and an additional 57,400 jobs in the region. This is in no small part due to the resort’s $1.1 billion expansion to Disney’s California Adventure, creating the popular Cars Land. Despite being built during the worst economy in decades, the Cars Land attraction is a game-changer for the region. In 2012, the attraction drew 7.8 million visitors, a 22% increase in visitors from 2011, and is expected to drive at least a 17% increase in income at Disneyland, not to mention the huge economic benefits to surrounding hotels, restaurants and other attractions.

John Wayne Airport experienced a 6 percent increase in airport service over the past year, despite its cap in capacity. JWA serves more than 9 million passengers annually and plays a crucial role in both business and tourism. The airport has received numerous awards for its innovation in engineering, transportation, facilities, improvement and development programs

We are fortunate to live in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and we benefit from many of Orange County’s natural wonders and world-class entertainment. Given the importance of the industry, we must carefully foster this “California experience” and never forget that tourism is recognized as a catalyst for improving the well-being of all Californians.  Tourism must remain top-of-mind for California’s business leaders, policymakers, opinion shapers and residents. When policy-makers put tourism on equal ground with other key industries, local communities and economies also thrive.