California tourism industry tackles climate change
Perhaps more than any sector of the North Bay and state’s economy, the tourism and hospitality industry and its ability to lure visitors is being severely tested by climate change.
“As an industry, we must acknowledge the climate threat to tourism and live up to California’s well-deserved reputation as the best steward of the environment by encouraging responsible travel and adopting green practices,” Caroline Beteta, CEO of Visit California, said in a Nov. 4 statement. “The opportunity to act has never been greater.”
Beteta’s message is not hyperbole. In 2019, before the pandemic, the state’s tourism industry contributed $145 billion to California’s economy, capping a decade of annual revenue growth. But that growth stalled in 2020, dropping by 55%.
The state’s tourism officials are examining how evidence of climate change – such as season after season of wildfires and drought – colors the way potential visitors see wine country.
Marketing campaigns are shifting toward messaging that assures travelers the tourism industry is addressing how to protect the environment and the steps it’s taking to effect change.
To Linsey Gallagher, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley, the obvious choice is to highlight the agricultural connection the area already has.
“The guiding light for us is the agricultural preserve that was created in 1968 in Napa Valley,” Gallagher said, “where we knew that the best use of our land was to keep it thriving in a vineyard and agricultural capacity, and that we needed to protect it accordingly.”
That guiding light over the years has led to plans to build on ways agriculture has capitalized on the positive image of protecting the environment. One way that’s already being done is through the Napa Green certification program for vineyards and wineries.
Founded in 2004 under the umbrella of the Napa Valley Vintners, Napa Green has since become a standalone nonprofit.
Napa Green’s certification program is on the cusp of being extended to the hospitality sector, said Gallagher, who sits on the organization’s board of directors.
It will start with hotels.
“We intend to move forward with that this spring with a pilot program, where we will look at different sizes and classes of lodging properties all throughout the valley,” Gallagher said. “We’ll have one pilot participant (each) in Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville, in the city of Napa and in American Canyon, as well as the unincorporated county.”
The concept and its details are in the early development stage, she said, but the goal is to create a certification program that is ongoing, rather than one and done.
“It’s going to be a challenging process to get through the first round of certification,” Gallagher said. “For hotel properties that get there, to maintain that status going forward, they're going to have to show continuous improvement and strive to do better year after year.”
If the effort proves successful within the lodging sector, Napa Green will then take the next step toward rolling out a certification program for other tourism-facing businesses, including restaurants, events and attractions, and transportation companies, Gallagher said.
‘NO LONGER A NUMBERS GAME’
Two years ago, Sonoma County Tourism announced it had hired an outside consulting firm to help develop a master plan — an initiative that was temporarily quashed when the pandemic hit, but is now set to resume early next year, according to Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO.
The work involves shifting Sonoma County Tourism’s focus from promoting the wine country destination as an ideal getaway, to emphasizing the need to preserve the region’s natural resources. It’s a messaging effort targeted toward visitors with the same mindset, Vecchio said.
“It was no longer going to be a numbers game, no longer about just touting the number of people who came into Sonoma County,” she said.
And there’s another motivation for SCT’s sustainability work.
“We're always concerned about the next generation and how we're going to continue to be a viable destination for (them),” Vecchio said. “I started to look at how younger travelers were considering travel destinations, how important it is for corporate social responsibility and other kinds of giveback initiatives.”
Visit California, too, is broadcasting the importance of reaching the next generation in order to keep the state’s tourism industry viable, according to Beteta.
“Before the pandemic, 54% of Generation Z travelers said the environmental impact of traveling is an important factor when deciding where to book travel,” Beteta said, citing Booking.com.