The County Voice

How Many Eggs are in Your Travel and Tourism Basket?

There’s a new report out from the California Travel and Tourism Commission that, among other things, points out that tourism in California has rebounded to pre-recession levels and once again, people are visiting the Golden State in droves. Preliminary estimates indicate travelers spent just shy of $110 Billion in California in 2013. That’s great news. Tourism is a huge boost for California’s economy. But it does make me wonder, what is it about California that is so special? Why do so many people want to come here?

As a native Californian who has traveled some, but never lived anywhere else, I’m not sure I have the perspective to answer that question.  I can tell you what I like about California in one word: Diversity! When you can hike in Yosemite, pan for gold in Coloma, dine in San Francisco, surf in Ventura and have your picture taken with Mickey, all in the same week, what’s not to like? (OK-I’ve never actually been surfing, and it’s been a LONG time since I had my picture taken with Mickey, but, you get the point.)

The report also says that tourism is important all over California. Sure there are hotspots, the few I mentioned above, and add in Napa, Hollywood, San Diego and a few more. But the report also indicates that tourism is picking up even in some of the smaller, lesser-known destinations. Not all of the tourist attractions in California have gift shops, snack bars and indoor plumbing. People looking for solitude, even desolation can find that in California, too. More diversity!

I never used to think of my hometown of Petaluma in Sonoma County as being a “destination.” When I was growing up there it used to be a little ag town, producing chickens, eggs, meat and dairy. Now, Petaluma has grown into a gateway for people from all over the world interested in artisanal food and wine, beautiful coastlines and towering Redwoods. In 2013, tourists spent more than $1.5 billion in my home-county of Sonoma. That, as the saying goes, is a lot of chicken feed.

Economists however, worry that tourism might play too big of a role in some local economies, and rightly so. When times are good, people travel and spend their money in tourist destinations. Conversely, when times get a little rough, people travel less and tourist destinations are among the first to feel the pinch. If tourism is the major driver of your local economy, the ups and downs will affect you more often and more deeply. The places that weathered our last downturn the best are those that enjoy a diverse economic portfolio. (There’s that word again-diversity.) So while the report from the Travel and Tourism Commission is good news, I think it’s important to read between the lines a little bit. If you hitch your wagon solely to the economic engine of tourism, you will eventually find yourself struggling to pull the load.

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