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California’s tourism industry geared up to reopen

California opens up Tuesday with tourism officials eager to welcome visitors, but they face competition from thousands of miles away.

“California is perceived to be less-destination ready than the rest of the U.S., in particular our friends in Florida,” Visit California CEO Caroline Beteta said Monday. “Americans see Florida as being more open than California, and that’s the hard work we have to do.”

As the state’s businesses prepare for restrictions to be lifted, Beteta also recounted the devastation the pandemic has caused California’s tourism industry that in 2019 amounted to $145 billion a year.

“The travel and tourism sector was hardest hit; we all know that,” Beteta said at a Visit California press conference in San Francisco with state leaders that included Gov. Gavin Newsom. Visit California is a nonprofit organization tasked with driving domestic and international visitation to the state. “This was 10 times the size of 9/11, and more than 55% of spending evaporated overnight.”

Beteta said it will be another four years before the tourism and travel industry gets back to the billions brought in two years ago. That work will be challenging, including for the North Bay’s tourism leaders.

Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism, said that “after a devastating year that saw visitor spending decrease almost 50% and the industry’s workforce slashed by 30%,” she is glad the county’s tourism industry can fully welcome visitors back again.

Linsey Gallagher, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley, said she is starting to see travelers coming from farther away.

“While up to this point we were seeing mostly tourists from within California — especially the Bay Area drive market — for weekend trips, we are starting to see those East Coast and Midwest visitors return for a long-awaited wine country vacation,” Gallagher said. “And with that, Napa Valley is finally seeing a bump in midweek occupancy, with overall occupancy hovering around 70%, and weekends at around 80%-85%.”

Beteta, as she encouraged during the agency’s May 4 press conference, again put out a plea for Californians to spend their tourism dollars in the state to help hasten the recovery.

Beteta also pointed out that California’s tourism economy is 1½ times the size of Florida’s and five times the size of Hawaii’s.

But Newsom pointed out that California’s economy overall fared better during the pandemic.

“Florida actually had worse economic outcome over the course of the last year than the state of California. So did Texas,” Newsom said. “The economy in the state of California did not contract as much as those states … because of the health-first focus.”

Newsom said 38% of America’s jobs last month came from California; and 41% of America’s jobs in February came from California.

“Don’t take my word for it. Just look at the data,” he said. “Look at the facts.”

Newsom also said the state will be providing tourism and travel incentives that include giveaways to Disneyland and other attractions, as well as professional sports games, symphonies, and hotel and culinary experiences.

“With all due respect, eat your heart out the rest of the United States. There’s no state in America that has more in terms of experiences, more in terms of its culinary options than the great state of California,” Newsom said. “We want to highlight all of that and remind people of the opportunities with California reopening tomorrow: no more physical distancing requirements, no more caps on occupancy, moving beyond the blueprint, aligning with the CDC on mask mandates. It all goes into effect midnight tonight in the state of California.”

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