Marin County tourism industry grows 7%–10%

Marin County's tourism industry has been growing by 7 percent to 10 percent over the past few years.

And while the majority of Marin's tourism revenue comes from visitors flocking to the county's national parks, which brought in $565 million in spending last year, attractions that include specialty foods, like oysters and artisanal cheese, are doing especially well in West Marin.

“West Marin wine venues and restaurants are booming,” said Debi Geller, business development manager at Nelson Staffing. “The artisanal cheese business is on fire.”

“Over the last five years, there has been an absolutely incredible increase in visitors,” said Michael Zilber, marketing manager at Cowgirl Creamery, an award-winning artisanal organic cheese company in Point Reyes.

The creamery could easily expand its tours and shop operations from five to seven days a week if it wanted to, Zilber said, but the company is more focused on maintaining its sustainability and being respectful of the impact expanding would have on neighbors in the small community of about 900.

Hog Island Oyster Co., also in West Marin, operates a farm and oyster bar on Tomales Bay. To deal with the uptick in visitors, a couple of years ago the company stopped taking walkins and implemented a reservation system when people started experiencing a two-hour wait.

“On the weekends, don't even come without a reservation,” said John Finger, co-founder and president.

Hog Island has oyster bars in San Francisco and Napa, but expansion in Marin would involve the consideration of neighbors, Finger said.

Because neither company advertises much, Zilber and Finger attribute the increase in visitors to people having “discovered” the area and its sustainable-practice businesses.

“People are taking day trips to wine country and San Francisco, and are checking out what we're doing,” Finger said.


One way people are finding the county is through social media.

“We're huge on Instagram,” said Mark Essman, president and CEO at Marin Convention and Visitors Bureau, the county's tourism marketing organization.

Marketing of the county is done heavily through social media, continually updating sites with fresh information. At between $450,000–$500,000, Marin does not have the marketing budget of nearby Napa County ($7 million) or Sonoma County ($7.1 million), Essman said.

“We can't compete but try to complement them,” he said.

Marin's tourism is largely driven largely by millennials looking for nontraditional experiences, Essman said. The largest demographic visiting the county's tourism website is 25- to 34-year-olds.

About 85 percent of Marin's visitors come from within a 200-mile radius, roughly from Monterey County to the south, Mendocino County to the north and Sacramento to the east.

The average visitor to Marin is at least a college graduate, has combined family income around $120,000 and stays two or three days. Most are repeat visitors, Essman said.

Typical visitors might be a family from Silicon Valley driving up to see how an active farm works or someone coming to an event like the Italian Street Painting in San Rafael, where more than 100 madonnari (street painters) transform the streets, or the Mill Valley Film Festival, which is entering its 40th year.

Marin is also on the map for commercial and TV production. In 2013 the county issued 15 permits, and that number jumped to 67 in 2015.

“If you see a commercial with a car buzzing along the coastline, it was either filmed here or in Big Sur,” Essman said.


Marin covers 800 square miles, roughly the same size as Napa County, and 80 percent of the county is protected open spaces.

Golden Gate National Recreation Area spans nearly 83,000 acres, including 60 miles of coastline across Marin, San Francisco and San Mateo counties. The parks employ more than 7,000 people, according to a new report for the National Park Service, with more than 500 new jobs added between 2014–2016.

According to the park service, Golden Gate National Recreation Area was the most-visited national park in the country in 2016, with more than 19 million people.

Last year, the park introduced new initiatives to bring in more visitors, including using free shuttles in partnership with the San Francisco Public Library summer reading program and the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy.

“As the National Park Service enters our second century of stewardship, it's inspiring to see the number of visitors, especially young people, enjoying their national parks,” said Craig Kenkel, acting Golden Gate superintendent. “Golden Gate National Recreation Area is proud to welcome so many - from local neighbors to visitors from around the world.”

CORRECTION: The Mill Valley Film Festival is entering its 40th year, not its 20th.

Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at or call 707-521-4259.

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