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San Francisco North Bay tourists spending more, but still not back to 2019 heyday

North Bay tourism spending in 2021

Sonoma County: $1.97 billion, +58% over 2020, -10.5% under 2019

Napa County: $1.5 billion, +51%, -16.7%*

Solano County: $704 million, +121%, -14.5%

Marin County: $469 million, +28.3%, -44%

Mendocino County: $433 million, +44.2%, -10.5%

Lake County: $176 million, +31.5%, -2.7%

Source: Visit California. Note: Napa County’s previous tourism spending figure was in 2018.

A tiny county in California is the sole standout among the state’s 58 counties to have seen visitor spending last year exceed 2019 figures — a banner tourism year before the pandemic all but took down the industry.

Trinity County, a rural area in the Shasta Cascades region of northwestern California, and with a population of 16,060, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics, brought in $61 million in visitor spending in 2021.

That’s according to Visit California’s recently released Economic Impact of Travel report for calendar year 2021.

In the North Bay, the six counties are continuing to make progress to pre-pandemic visitor spending, but none have yet achieved that milestone.

Figures from Trinity County also show urban travel destinations continue to face an uphill battle to gain back what was lost over the past two years.

Visit California commissioned Portland, Oregon-based travel economics firm Dean Runyan Associates to prepare the study. The figures are preliminary estimates, according to Visit California.

Overall total visitor spending in California last year remained at only 69% of the levels attained in 2019, according to Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California, the state’s tourism marketing organization.

“After a devastating 2020, visitor spending is on the stairway to recovery, but we still have a long way to go,” Beteta said in a statement. “Cities continue to suffer without the critical international and group business segments.”

Still, the North Bay’s popular wine country destinations are consistently reporting more visitor spending.

“Demand for Napa Valley experiences was very strong in 2021 and remains so into the first quarter of 2022,” said Linsey Gallagher, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley. She noted that demand is being driven primarily by leisure travelers.

According to the Dean Runyan study, total visitor spending last year in Napa County was $1.5 billion, up nearly 52% from 2020, when the pandemic restrictions began to take hold. The study found that visitor spending in the county over the past decade was highest in 2018, at $1.8 billion, and lowest in 2020 at $989 million.

In Sonoma County, total visitor spending in 2021 was $1.97 billion, up nearly 58% from the $1.25 billion visitors spent in 2020. Visitor spending in 2019 reached $2.2 billion, according to the report.

Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism, said she’s seeing “great momentum” but awaits a solid recovery.

The Dean Runyan report doesn’t parse-out visitor spending at popular travel destinations within a county, such as Sonoma Valley,

However, Tim Zahner, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, has charted the Valley’s own recovery by looking at the city of Sonoma’s transient occupancy tax figures (TOT), which is generated from people staying overnight in the city’s lodging properties.

The city’s TOT numbers in March 2020 totaled $103,105, compared to $502,553 in March of this year, according to Zahner.

“Our challenges remain staffing and encouraging visits during non-peak times,” Zahner said, “but those are much better problems to have than no customers and no demand."

Dean Runyan’s findings for visitor spending in the North Bay’s four other counties — Marin, Solano, Lake and Mendocino — show all have grown since 2020.

In Solano County, total visitor spending in 2021 was $704 million, up nearly 122% from the county’s 10-year low of $317,100, which bottomed out in 2020.

Total 2021 visitor spending in Marin County amounted to $469 million, up 28.3% from 2020. Visitor spending in the county in 2019 added up to $838 million, its highest figure over the course of the previous 10 years.

In Mendocino County, visitors in 2021 spent a collective total of $433 million, up 44.2% from 2020. Visitor spending in the county since 2012 was highest in 2019 at $484 million.

And in Lake County, total visitor spending last year added up to $176 million, up 31.5% from 2020. Visitor spending in the county over the last decade peaked in 2019 at $181 million.

So where did the visitors travel from?

Mostly from the state’s residents, as it turns out. And that’s exactly what Visit California’s marketing campaigns have focused on since the pandemic began, as previously reported in the Business Journal.

California residents accounted for 70% of all travel spending in the state in 2021, while out-of-state visitors accounted for approximately 24%. International travelers lagged, as expected, accounting for 6% of travel spending, according to the Dean Runyan report.

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. She previously worked for a Gannett daily newspaper in New Jersey and NJBIZ, the state’s business journal. Cheryl has freelanced for business journals in Sacramento, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

North Bay tourism spending in 2021

Sonoma County: $1.97 billion, +58% over 2020, -10.5% under 2019

Napa County: $1.5 billion, +51%, -16.7%*

Solano County: $704 million, +121%, -14.5%

Marin County: $469 million, +28.3%, -44%

Mendocino County: $433 million, +44.2%, -10.5%

Lake County: $176 million, +31.5%, -2.7%

Source: Visit California. Note: Napa County’s previous tourism spending figure was in 2018.

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