New figures show that even in the face of natural disasters that shook the travel and retail industries, tourism continues to be a top economic driver for the Central Coast.
Visitor spending topped $5 billion in the Tri-Counties in 2017, supporting nearly 50,000 jobs, according to data provided by state and county nonprofit marketing associations. Across California, spending grew nearly 5 percent to $132.4 billion, and tourism accounted for around 2.5 percent of the state’s GDP.
For SLO County, the industry is second only to agriculture, said Visit SLO CAL President and CEO Chuck Davison — and he contends that even that is up for debate if wine sales were to shift columns.
Domestic visitation increased 10 percent compared to 2016, he said. Occupancy rates saw slight declines as the market absorbed new inventories of rooms, including a “reinvestment in the community” through projects like the Inn at the Pier “that are really going to add some great, four-star, boutique” rooms to the supply.
The expansion of direct service to Seattle and Denver at the SLO County Regional Airport have provided new channels for “the visitor that wants to experience the California that’s less traveled.”
“Opportunities like that can open us to new corridors and hubs, but also connect us to international travelers” through connecting flights, Davison said.
Already managing a decline in international business as foreign visitors await the reopening of Highway 1 in September, Visit SLO CAL’s board approved $250,000 to conduct a study on the role of tourism in mitigating an expected $1 billion economic loss to the county with the 2025 closure of the Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant.
The study will focus on place-making, Davison said, in partnership with a consulting company, city managers and the county administrative office. The agency will also bring its focus on the Central Coast lifestyle to the U.S. Travel Association trade show in Denver on May 19-23.
“How do we plan what our sense of place looks like and build that out?” he said. “It’s a critical time in planning for the future, but a really exciting time.”
Cherryl Connally, co-owner of Island Packers in Ventura, also cited new hotel and residential developments at the Ventura and Channel Islands harbors as a potential for increased traffic to shops, restaurants and attractions.
With 110,000 passengers booking tours and trips to the Channel Islands National Park, 2017 was the highest ever capacity for Island Packers, Connally said, and she expects the momentum to continue into the summer as the company celebrates its 50th anniversary.
In addition to a national and international market drawn in by the park, the company got increased local exposure in December and January when it offered ferry service between Ventura and Santa Barbara during the shutdown of the Highway 101 corridor due to fires and mudslides.
“We’re a company that’s related to weather and problems kind of like a farmer,” she said. “You don’t know how the season’s going to be until we get through the winters and the tough times.”
Out-of-state residents contributed 60 percent of visitor spending in 2017, according to Visit Ventura, supporting local services such as police, firefighters, roads and libraries.
“It’s a fine balance between maintaining Ventura’s charm and letting Ventura shine in the spotlight,” Marlyss Auster, Visit Ventura president and CEO, said in a news release. “For Visit Ventura, it’s not only about growth. It’s about the quality of tourism we foster.”
Last year, the industry invested in marketing efforts in 13 international markets to attract longer stays and higher travel spending.
Ventura hosted the second leg of the annual Amgen Tour of California on May 14, complete with aerialists and giant kites at the pier, a Color Guard from Naval Base Ventura County, Ballet Folklorico Bell Arts dancers and wheel formations featuring giant Ventura-branded parachutes. The leg ended the day in Santa Barbara.
“It goes without saying that this wasn’t an ordinary, ‘business as usual’ year,” Visit Santa Barbara President and CEO Kathy Janega-Dykes said at the organization’s annual meeting May 10. “Many of Visit Santa Barbara’s originally planned marketing activities were halted as we adjusted our strategy and messaging in response to the circumstances. And several months after the unprecedented Thomas fire and Montecito debris flow, our industry is still in recovery mode.”
Visit SB installed five new board members at the event, which featured keynote speaker Alex Sheen, who founded the nonprofit “because I said I would” and a screening of an episode of YouTube food critic the California Dream Eater’s visit to Ventura and Santa Barbara.
As they head into the busy season, businesses are working to overcome revenue losses as high as 80 percent for December and January, said Skip Abed, owner of the Santa Barbara Sailing Center.
Whale watching tours wrapped up the prior week, and the company is gearing up for kids camps and the summer rush as long as the skies stay clear.
“Visit California and Visit Santa Barbara really have been working closely together to give a lot more attention to our area and to help the community get back to generating more visitors,” Abed said, highlighting increased drive markets as well as visitors from India, China and the Middle East. “We haven’t fully rebounded … but we’re headed in the right direction. We’re a tough community.”
• Contact Marissa Nall at [email protected]