ROHNERT PARK — A surge of visitors flowed into Sonoma County in 2012, a trend that is expected to continue this year while driving expansion within the county's $1.3 billion tourism sector.
The county last year attracted about 7.5 million tourists, Ken Fischang, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism, reported Wednesday at the group's annual meeting.
Hotel occupancy rates rose 6.2 percent last year, filling 67.1 percent of local hotel rooms, according to Smith Travel Research, which tracks the sector.
Rising demand has allowed local hotels to increase their prices. The average daily room rate rose 3.6 percent last year to $116.80, according to Smith.
Tourism officials expect growth will continue this year. Sonoma County Tourism, formerly the county tourism bureau, projects its budget will grow 6 percent this year to $5.3 million. Most of the budget comes from an assessment that county hotels and other lodging establishments began paying about eight years ago, in addition to bed taxes.
Tim McGregor, general manager of the Bodega Bay Lodge and chairman of the tourism group's board of directors, said he expects another good year for tourism.
"We see it through the numbers," McGregor said.
David Rabbitt, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, told the audience of more than 100 that the tourism and hospitality sector was the "basis and the backbone of our recovery" after the economic downturn in 2008.
The sector, he said, employs 17,000 workers and annually provides about $80 million in tax revenue to local government.
Rabbitt predicted the county airport will expand in coming years with more flights from new destinations, bringing in more travelers "with plenty of money in their pockets."
Tourism leaders on Wednesday unveiled a redesigned tourism website, featuring their "Do You Speak Sonoma" campaign, plus a new online site for off-season deals: sonomasneakaway.com.
The agency's staff attended about 100 trade shows last year and reported an increase in the number of groups seeking meeting locales and couples planning destination weddings.
The group also announced victory in a six-year struggle to have Sonoma County categorized as part of the Bay Area for tourism promotion.
Previously, the county was categorized in the North Coast region by Visit California, the state's tourism bureau. But on the state's travel website, the Bay Area promotions receive twice the number of hits as those for the North Coast. And the county now will be added to about a million Bay Area tourism maps printed each year, said Tom Klein, proprietor of Rodney Strong Vineyards near Healdsburg.
Klein, also a director for the Visit California board, said the change was challenged by Napa tourism officials, who already are part of the Bay Area region. Klein responded that the town of Sonoma is closer to San Francisco than Napa, and Healdsburg is closer than St. Helena.