Crushed no more: California Wine Country tourism rebounds from COVID hits to economy

If there’s a way out of the morass that was North Bay tourism during the pandemic, the answer may come by encouraging people to cross the U.S. border or to take a drive to Wine Country from San Francisco.

Over the past two years, every facet of the tourism industry has been decimated, and popular destinations like Wine Country have suffered the most. But tourism officials have not been sitting on their hands waiting for the problems to resolve on their own.

Last week, Visit California brought together more than a dozen of the state’s tourism leaders, including from Napa and Sonoma counties, to meet in-person with media and tourism executives in Mexico.

The trip marked the official relaunch of a $28 billion annual segment of business lost to the pandemic: international tourism.

“Mexicans are three times more likely than the global average to visit in the next 12 months,” Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of the state’s tourism marketing agency, stated in her March 11 CEO update. Before the pandemic, international visitation to California accounted for nearly $1 of every $5 spent, she said.

But then the pandemic went on to crush the entire tourism industry.

Napa and Sonoma counties’ hotels, with the exception of those that housed essential travelers, went dark. The North Bay’s restaurants went into free fall, as did retailers whose wares rely on tourists. Travel in and out of Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport was limited to essential business.

Just days before Gov. Gavin Newsom issued the first mandatory stay-at-home order on March 19, 2020, Sonoma and Napa counties’ tourism leaders — Linsey Gallagher and Claudia Vecchio, respectively — were among those bracing for what they thought might be a “five- to six-month” bottoming out of the industry.

Clearly, that didn’t happen. So, the industry quickly committed to recovery efforts. That commitment was critical as the state would go on to reopen, then close again, a number of times.

At the end of June 2020, Visit California tested the waters and launched a statewide marketing campaign aimed at the drive market. In Napa and Sonoma counties, the drive market is generally defined between the greater San Francisco Bay Area and Sacramento, though there are slight variances between the two regions.

The campaign was successful, so Visit California is continuing with the theme. This month, the agency rolled out its “California Road Trip Republic” national ad campaign.

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