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Legislation aims to replenish California tourism marketing funds depleted under pandemic restrictions

In a legislative approach that mirrors the response to the 9/11 terrorist attack, a North Bay legislator is proposing a $45 million state-funded campaign to encourage people to travel once they can.

Known as the California Tourism Act, Senate Bill 285 is authored by state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, and Assembly member Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Buena Park, a district that includes Anaheim, the home of Disneyland and other attractions that remain idle under state restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic.

Introduced Feb. 1, SB 285 would provide $45 million to the state’s nonprofit tourism organization, Visit California, to launch a media and jobs recovery campaign called “Calling All Californians,” aimed at driving in-state travel to hospitality businesses and popular destinations that largely have been dark for nearly a year.

Newspaper publishers and broadcast media would match the funds provided to Visit California, said McGuire and Visit California CEO Caroline Beteta during a Feb. 24 virtual roundtable discussion.

“We actually have more than 20,000 businesses that pay an assessment and because of the pandemic, when the tourism business revenues stopped, so did our funding,” Beteta said. “We were able to conserve some cash due to the shutdowns for a recovery campaign, but our marketing will stop in June of this year as those reserves dwindle.”

If SB 285 passes, the campaign would launch when the state Department of Public Health declares it appropriate to resume travel, and also would emphasize how to travel safely, according to McGuire. The current proposal, he added, is modeled after a previous action by the state after Sept. 11, 2001.

There were nearly 700 attendees for the discussion, according to McGuire. At least three of them were from the North Bay.

Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism, said the legislation and its multimillion-dollar allocation for tourism marketing is a “tremendous first step to jumpstarting the industry.

“Now is the time to get our businesses open, our employees back to work and our economy safely and responsibly restarted,” Vecchio said. “Senator McGuire, a Sonoma Countian, was clear about his intent to champion this effort and lead us to finding real solutions that will reenergize the tourism industry and our economy.”

Panelists at McGuire’s roundtable event included representatives from Disneyland and neighboring hotel Castle Inn & Suites, as well as from the Santa Clara County Convention Center and Visit Yosemite.

“The heart-wrenching stories provided by representatives from the hospitality unions illuminated the toll being out of work has taken on their members,” Vecchio said. “(McGuire) also noted that all Californians have been impacted by the drop in revenue to government budgets and associated programs and services due to the losses in the tourism industry.”

Linsey Gallagher, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley, said that county’s economy can’t recover until tourism rebounds.

“This bill will spur our community’s recovery by promoting safe and responsible Wine Country travel,” she said. “Now is the time, as vaccines continue to be distributed and case counts drop, to encourage Californians to explore their own state.”

Tim Zahner, executive director of Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, said the pandemic has not only impacted the region’s tourism economy, but the number of local residents who work in the industry.

“It’s important to note that hospitality not only provides jobs for those new to the workforce, but it also is one of the few industries where you are able to advance without requiring a four-year degree,” he said.

Zahner also said it’s a smart move to partner with Visit California, which he noted has a proven track record of success for promoting places like Sonoma Valley.

“We don’t need to build factories or invest in major infrastructure to bring back jobs immediately,” Zahner said. “We just need to induce some demand through marketing and promotion and get the word out that we are open.”

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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