Several years of devastating wildfires have taken a toll on California tourism but have not affected overall visitor numbers. Instead, the fires have changed the way the state markets itself and made it harder for tourism employees to live in California.
After several years of unprecedented wildfires, many of them raging through national forests and the celebrated Napa/Sonoma wine region, California’s tourism industry is up against what former Governor Jerry Brown calls “the new abnormal.”
While visitor numbers remain strong, California tourism marketers are grappling with other challenges, some of them exacerbated by the fires. These issues include a lack of affordable housing for service employees and the need to steer wine tourism away from the popular — and most fire-prone — fall harvest season.
There are also worries that the image of the Golden State may be irrevocably tarnished.
Among those concerned about all of these issues is Caroline Beteta, CEO of Visit California, the statewide tourism marketing arm. In particular, she is frustrated by dramatic media coverage that gives the impression the entire state is engulfed in flames.
“There is a real threat to our brand being tarnished, with these visual images year after year,” she said. “This year was actually the fifth lightest fire season for California in 25 years, but this was not mentioned once during the coverage. There was no loss of life, and just one winery out of many hundreds was burned.”
Despite the wildfires, California visitation and visitor spending have continued to grow for the past nine years. According to figures from Visit California, nearly 42 million visitors arrived in California on domestic flights last year, up by 7.3 percent in 2017, while visitor spending hit an estimated $140.7 billion.
Even so, the wildfires have prompted changes in how the state markets and manages tourism, including placing more emphasis on visiting wine regions during the winter and spring, Beteta said. The state is also working to encourage more visitation to lesser-known wine regions such as Paso Robles on the Central Coast and Temecula in Southern California.
Visit California is currently developing a Destination Stewardship Plan, which is addressing the impact of wildfires and climate change as well as the need for affordable workforce housing. With input from over 1,000 tourism industry members, a final plan is expected to be released in May.
“What’s encouraging is that the tourism industry is really stepping up by encouraging local politicians to work on issues like affordable housing,” Beteta said. “Organizations like the San Francisco Travel Association have become very aggressive on this.”
Wine Country Woes
The tourism destination most struggling with the wildfire aftermath is Sonoma County where the Kincade Fire burned over 77,000 acres in October, coming dangerously close to the popular tourist town of Healdsburg and destroying the historic Soda Rock Winery.
The county was still reeling from the far more disastrous Tubbs and Atlas fires of October 2017, which destroyed entire neighborhoods and two major hotels in Santa Rosa as well as multiple wineries throughout Sonoma County and neighboring Napa County. (While the Tubbs Fire was the largest wildfire in California history, it was soon eclipsed in 2018 by the Camp Fire, which decimated the Northern California town of Paradise.)
After a huge marketing effort in 2018 to shore up its hard-hit tourism industry, visitation was returning to normal just as the Kincade Fire and several days of power shutoffs throughout the county occurred, said Claudia Vecchio, CEO of Sonoma County Tourism.
Now Sonoma County is launching a Gather in Sonoma initiative, primarily aimed at the drive market, to encourage winter holiday visitation. A more ambitious program called Life Opens Up is positioning Sonoma County as a spring destination for national and international visitors.
“We’re working with travel agents and tour operators to help us boost our shoulder seasons on a global basis,” Vecchio said. “One thing we’re doing is a virtual trade show where travel professionals can go online and click on an information ‘booth’ for real-time connectivity.”
Napa Valley, which enjoys greater name recognition than Sonoma and did not suffer the same degree of fire devastation, rebounded more quickly after the 2017 fires. While tourism took a nosedive in late 2017, the destination hosted a record 3.85 million visitors in 2018, according to Linsey Gallagher, CEO of Visit Napa Valley.
Nevertheless, the organization is concerned with perception issues from wildfires and, like Sonoma County, has changed its approach to tourism marketing by pulling emphasis away from the fall harvest season.
“We’re trying to drive more tourism to what we call our Cabernet Season, which is November through April,” Gallagher said. “Our sales team is working with travel advisors and meeting planners to get out the message that it’s a beautiful, peaceful time to visit.”
At the same time, Visit Napa Valley is also addressing other tourism-related issues, including the car traffic that frequently clogs the two narrow highways flanking the valley’s vineyards.
“Our hotel members are lending financial support to Napa Valley Forward, a project which encourages people to ride bikes and use shuttles,” Gallagher said. “We’re trying to come up with incentive-based solutions that change behavior and promote sustainability. We know we have to do more than just marketing to get people to come here.”
Gary Pollard, owner of Ambassador Tours, a 60-year-old leisure travel agency based in San Francisco, is among travel professionals who feel California’s lack of affordable housing is a more serious issue facing the state’s tourism industry than visitor numbers or perception over the wildfires.
“The problem is not in getting people to come here — it’s how we serve them once they get here,” he said. “Restaurants and hotels are struggling to find help. Many service workers in the Bay Area have to commute two hours from the Central Valley. Is that sustainable? Something has to give.”
Continual wildfires are only making it more difficult for people who work in the tourism industry to live in the state, according to marketing consultant John Poimiroo, California’s former state tourism director and creator of the California Tourism Marketing Act, which catapulted the state’s tourism budget from 48th in the nation to first place.
“Wildfire has become an existential threat to tourism in California, not because it’s incinerating tourism facilities but because of how it’s affecting rural tourism’s ability to survive due to the loss of fire insurance and workforce housing,” he said.
Not only have residents and small business owners lost their homes and stores in the wildfires, but many cannot rebuild because of the difficulty of obtaining fire insurance, Poimiroo added.
“These fires are social disasters because we need to assure that people can get insured and come back,” he said. “Otherwise our tourism destinations will have no employees.”
California’s booming economy, and widening income inequality, is also contributing to the crisis, creating a situation where wealthy vacation home buyers, many of them operating short-term rentals, are displacing locals, Poimiroo said.
“This is now a huge issue in places like Lake Tahoe,” he said. “Workforce housing was the hot topic at the recent Tahoe Economic Conference. The question is whether or not communities have the political will to deal with it.”
Although visitor numbers are high, Pollard thought it would be a mistake to assume that tourism in California won’t face increasing competition, particularly from the burgeoning number of wine regions around the world, and could push off addressing issues such as traffic and affordability.
“If other destinations have attractive wine destinations, along with less congestion and less cost, why should California be the automatic choice?” he said. “We can’t assume because we have the Golden Gate Bridge and beaches that people will come here. You can’t rely on what happened yesterday.”
Skift Daily Newsletter
Get the travel industry’s daily must-read email 6 days a week
Photo credit: California tourism must cope with a lack of affordable housing for service workers trying to live in areas ravaged by wildfires. Pictured, Pamela Harris sheds tears as she closes the doors of her Pine Mountain Deli after 10 years in business in Groveland, Calf., on October 18, 2013. Businesses in the area of Yosemite National Park took a double hit as first the Rim Fire wildfires kept visitors away followed by the federal budget shutdown of the park. Randall Benton / Sacramento Bee