Sonoma County's $1.5 billion tourism industry is becoming more sustainable in reaction to the growing number of tourists demanding vacations that are socially and environmentally friendly, a panel of experts said Wednesday.

The adoption of sustainable practices, evident in many sectors in Sonoma County from agriculture to construction to the generation of electricity, is perhaps most visible in the tourism industry that attracts 8 million visitors to the county annually, experts told business leaders attending the ninth annual Sustainable Enterprise Conference in Rohnert Park.

"We all know the effects tourism has had on the environment — the fuel used, the development that displaces local communities," said Robert Girling, a Sonoma State University professor of sustainable enterprise. "In recent years, there has been a shift toward ecotourism, which improves the well-being of local people."

The conference, at the green-minded Sonoma Mountain Village business park, featured leaders in industry, academics and politics talking about building a sustainable economy that confronts challenges like climate change.

Geof Syphers, CEO of Sonoma Clean Power, the local energy startup that begins serving customers Thursday, said the agency's efforts to source clean, local power has forced PG&E to offer its own clean electricity options.

"The coolest part about this is that we get to celebrate the fact that PG&E is starting to step up," Syphers said. "This is incredibly exciting. We've found one tool that really addresses one part of climate change."

Sheryl O'Loughlin, professor of entrepreneurship at SSU and former CEO of Clif Bar, said that companies wishing to become more sustainable should start with small changes like using efficient light bulbs or performing energy audits to identify ways to conserve.

"It's so important to just get started," she said. "Those kind of small steps convince people that it can work and can be successful."

On the ecotourism front, North Coast companies are offering trips geared to get tourists out of cars and buses. Getaway Adventures, for example, leads bike tours to wineries in Sonoma and Napa counties. Other operators provide farm stays, coastal hikes and ziplines though redwood trees.

"More and more people want to travel to experience something," said Pam Lanier, founder of Friends of Sustainable Tourism International. "They don't just want to see something, they want to do and learn something."

Sonoma County Tourism, the regional tourism promotional agency, is pushing activities like birding and whale watching, said president Ken Fischang. The natural beauty of Sonoma County, not the wine industry, is the number one reason people visit, according to Sonoma County Tourism surveys.

"We are so rich with ecotourism opportunities," Fischang said. "We want to promote the number one reason why people come here."

Sustainable tourism means more business for mom-and-pop operators, said Malia Everette, founder of Altruvistas, a tour company and foundation that promotes philanthropy and social responsibility in the travel industry. This means that more revenue stays in the local economy, she said.

"We are addressing equality and where the money goes," she said. "You can really see the transformational power of travel."

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