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A game changer: How resumed global travel could revive California Wine Country tourism

A return of international visitors — a $28 billion business before the pandemic — could receive a boost following the Biden administration's decision to lift air travel restrictions.

“This news truly changes the game for California’s economic recovery,” Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of Visit California, said in a statement following the federal government’s Sept. 20 announcement. She also stated that international tourism is California’s largest export.

Tim Zahner, executive director of the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, also applauded the news but pointed out the “calculus works in both directions,” at least in Wine Country.

“We were enjoying people from California who could not go to Tuscany, or postponed their European trip,” Zahner said. “So, while it does definitely open us up for a new market of inbound international travel, you also might lose some people who can actually go to Europe.”

International travel and tourism are powerful drivers for the entire country’s economic well-being, as noted by the U.S. Travel Association, whose mission is to increase travel to and within the United States. Before Sept. 20, the country was projected to lose $175 billion in export income from international visitors this year, according to the organization.

"This is a major turning point in the management of the virus and will accelerate the recovery of the millions of travel-related jobs that have been lost due to international travel restrictions,” U.S. Travel Association President and CEO Roger Dow said in a Sept. 20 statement.

The Biden administration’s forthcoming eased restrictions also reopen the door for foreigners with work permits to return to their jobs in America, but at the same time tightens other restrictions.

Fully vaccinated travelers also will be required 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. The new restrictions do not impact border policies with the country’s two North American neighbors, Mexico and Canada.

Before the announcement that international air travel will resume in November — an exact date has not yet been released — the industry, including Visit California, had been forecasting that tourism revenue likely wouldn’t fully reach pre-pandemic levels until 2024. That forecast has been largely contingent on a lack of international travelers.

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, Destination Analysts

So, is it realistic now to believe total economic recovery will come before another three years?

“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,” said David Bratton, founder and managing director of Destination Analysts, a San Francisco-based travel research firm that tracks the industry nationwide. He said there remain a lot of “ifs,” including the possibility that further COVID-19 variants could pop up.

“Before the coronavirus pandemic, international travel was the big heavy mover in terms of the economics behind the industry,” Bratton said. “People who came here from abroad were spending way more than domestic travelers.”

Notably, there is one country in particular the travel industry is anxious to welcome back to America.

“China is like the golden child of tourism,” Bratton said. “They have such a strong interest in America and they spend a lot of money here.”

And that includes California, which Bratton said is one of the most compelling destinations for international travelers.

“California stands to benefit greatly — probably more so than most destinations — by reopening and letting people back in because we are such a powerful brand,” he said.

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.

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