North Bay tourism industry eagerly awaits return of international visitors after travel ban lifts

On Monday, Nov. 8, the state’s tourism and travel industry leaders will begin to rebuild a $28 billion annual segment of business lost to the pandemic.

On that day, international travel restrictions to the U.S. will be lifted, allowing fully vaccinated people to fly into the country, and cross the borders if coming from Mexico or Canada. The Biden administration made the announcement Sept. 20.

“This long-awaited date is vital to California’s continued recovery,” Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California, said in an Oct. 21 statement. “International travelers are highly valuable customers, often traveling in off-peak periods and planning trips well in advance.”

Visit California hopes to first attract visitors from Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom, followed by Germany and France, said Beteta, who leads the nonprofit organization tasked with driving domestic and international visitation to the state.

“Many parts of the state cannot fully recover until international travel returns,” Beteta said. “Gateway cities are especially dependent — for example, 59% of pre-pandemic travel spending in San Francisco was by international visitors.”

Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism, said the county largely relies on international visitors flying into San Francisco.

“We benefit from the interest in San Francisco, and certainly when people come up to Wine Country from there,” Vecchio said, describing the city as a global gateway. “That’s how we get the majority of our visitors.”

But the return of international visitors won’t happen quickly because flights will come back in a phased manner, she noted.

International spending in Sonoma County in 2019 accounted for about 10% to 15% of overall visitation, Vecchio said.

Spending by international tourists is next to impossible to fully extrapolate, Vecchio said. One of the resources her agency uses comes from VisaVue, a research firm that reports international spending by visitors who use Visa cards to travel to California. There aren’t firms that capture such spending from other cards, such as MasterCard or American Express, she said.

Based on VisaVue research alone, international travelers in 2019 spent about $16 million in Sonoma County. Most of that spending came from Canada ($4.5 million), followed by the U.K. ($1.5 million) and China ($1 million), she said.

Sonoma County Tourism will restart its international marketing efforts early in the year, Vecchio said, starting with the U.K., Germany and Australia — the markets that have historically brought the most dollars to Sonoma County’s economy.

Linsey Gallagher, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley, said that prior to the pandemic, 19.2% of the region’s visitors came from international markets.

Beteta has stated that international tourism is California’s largest export, and that the return of visitors from around the globe would be a game changer for the state’s economic recovery.

International tourism also is big business nationwide. Before the Sept. 20 announcement, the country was projected to lose $175 billion in export income from international visitors this year, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Upon the news, Roger Dow, president and CEO, called the decision a major turning point in the management of the virus.

Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of the San Francisco Travel Association, wrote in an email to the Business Journal: “Pre-COVID, international visitors comprised about 25% of overnight visitors, but they generated more than 60% of all overnight visitor spending.”

He continued, “International visitors to the Bay Area tend to stay longer and spend more, so their return is vital to San Francisco’s economic recovery.” The association represents more than 1,300 businesses in and around San Francisco.

Like Vecchio, D’Alessandro stated the return of international flights won’t happen overnight.

Under the new federal policy, fully vaccinated travelers will have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of flying, and unvaccinated Americans traveling from abroad must be tested within a day before returning to the states, and again after they get home.

Before the Sept. 20 announcement, Visit California had projected it would take another three years before tourism revenue rebounded to pre-pandemic levels. That forecast was based largely on the lack of international travelers.

Whether or not the industry’s economic recovery could come sooner remains to be seen, especially with the pandemic still in play, according to a travel research firm that tracks the industry nationwide.

“If everything goes well, I would think by the end of next year we should have a really good sense for how the economic side of the crisis is going to play out in the tourism industry,” David Bratton, founder and managing director of San Francisco-based Destination Analysts, told the Business Journal after the news broke that international travel would be resuming.

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 or 707-521-4259.

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