Hearst Castle prepares to reopen after more than two years
The top international traveler attraction in San Luis Obispo County will reopen its doors in May, offering a likely boost to nearby businesses, especially those that serve tourists.
After a closure that has gone on for more than two years, the world-renowned Hearst Castle in San Simeon will reopen to guests on May 11. The nearly 130-acre estate, which newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst started building more than a century ago, was closed early in the COVID-19 pandemic and stayed closed due to heavy rains in early 2021 that damaged the roadway leading to the site from Highway 1.
“We’re excited for the economic benefit our communities are going to see,” said Chuck Davison, the president and CEO of Visit SLO CAL, the countywide tourism marketing organization. “We see huge demand from our international markets of wanting to come and not only drive the Highway 1 experience, but to get inside and tour the William Randolph Hearst Castle.”
Hearst Castle is the number one destination in the county for international visitors, who are a vital revenue source because they tend to spend more money and stay longer than domestic travelers, Davison said.
Even if the castle had remained open, not many international travelers would have visited in 2020 or 2021, as the United States banned most nonessential travel from other countries for the first 18 months of the pandemic.
Visitors to Hearst Castle, whether domestic or foreign, often spend their money at San Luis Obispo County businesses, on lodging, restaurants, grocery stores, shopping, souvenirs, leisure activities and entertainment, and more sightseeing.
“Every time somebody comes into the county, they’re spending money in other places,” Davison said.
In Cambria, foreign travels are filling Linn’s Restaurant on Main Street for the first time since the pandemic began in early 2020.
International travel “just hasn’t been here” until very recently, said Aaron Linn, the general manager of Linn’s Fruit Bin, which owns the restaurant and an accompanying shop.
But in just the last few weeks, the traffic from international visitors “has been immense,” Linn said. On a recent day he saw travelers from London at one table, Germans at another table and Israelis at a third.
In recent years, Cambria has grown as a destination because of frequent closures on Highway 1 that have limited travel to coastal areas farther north, Linn said.
“Then, there was COVID,” Linn said, and many travelers flocked to smaller towns like Cambria.
“Even with the castle closed, people have been coming in record numbers last year,” Linn said. “This year so far, so good.”
Mike Dawson, the media strategist at Solterra Strategies, the marketing agency for San Simeon, said open spaces and coastal hideaways thrived during the pandemic. Local businesses adapted quickly, and communities embraced outdoor dining and wine tasting.
San Simeon “fared very well,” Dawson said, and hotels were booked with long-term stays.
Hearst Castle is a huge draw and a pillar of the economy in San Simeon, which is the closest town to the estate. When the castle reopens, national and international visitors who fly to Santa Barbara or Los Angeles will start driving up the coast again, and they’ll need places to stay and eat.
“There’s no denying the fact Hearst Castle is a huge part of business,” Dawson said.
Before it closed in 2020, as many as 850,000 people visited Hearst Castle every year, according to California State Parks, which owns and operates the estate.
The majority of visitors usually come from within California, said Jim Allen, the director of marketing and communications at Hearst Castle. International visitors to Hearst Castle tend to originate from the same markets that travel to the California as a whole, he said. In the past, these have included Canada, the United Kingdom, European countries, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and Asian nations.
The castle has a variety of visitors in terms of demographics, Allen said, including couples, families, multi-generational family groups and tour groups. In the off-season — winter — and “shoulder” seasons — fall and spring — the property tends to see more middle-aged couples and senior couples on weekdays.
Typically, tour tickets are reserved close to the date of the visit, so State Parks officials do not yet have a sense of what to expect on May 11, Allen said. The castle will be staffed and prepared for visitation levels “we’d expect in past years for this time of the season,” he said.
Allen said the California State Parks employs about 120 full-time and 200 part-time people in the San Luis Obispo Coast District, which includes Hearst Castle and several campgrounds, natural areas, beaches, hiking trails and the Morro Bay Natural History Museum. Hearst Castle concessionaires also employ people to provide food and retail services, bus operations, and the visitor center theater.
State Parks employees were kept on during the closure to the “greatest extent possible,” Allen said.
“We purchase as many materials and services as possible from local, small businesses, which also supports local jobs, local spending and contribution to the local tax base,” he said. “That spending has continued during the closure.”