Tourism continues to be a bright spot for Sonoma County's economy, growing 15 percent last year, industry leaders said Thursday at a conference in Santa Rosa.

The travel sector should grow another 5 percent this year, said Ken Fischang, who heads the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau.

"We had a great 2011 and expect the same in 2012," he said.

Sonoma County attracts about 7 million visitors each year, who spend between $1.2 and $1.3 billion on hotels, restaurants and attractions. The industry provides more than 16,000 jobs.

Tourism will gain this year from events such as the Amgen Tour of California, which starts in Santa Rosa on May 13, said county Supervisor Shirlee Zane.

"It's an opportunity to showcase Sonoma County and Santa Rosa to the world," she said.

Travel took a hit during the recession, but started to recover during the second half of 2010. Sonoma County has rebounded more quickly than other destinations because it boosted marketing during the downturn, Fischang said.

"My numbers are way up over last year," said Todd Anderson, who manages Best Western Plus Wine Country Inn and Suites in Santa Rosa. "This year may be even better."

The hotel on Hopper Avenue just finished a major renovation and, like many Wine Country hotels, is finding new ways to cater to travelers concerned about their impact on the environment.

Under one new program to designed reduce its waste, the hotel has started collecting used soap left by guests, which is sterilized and melted into new bars of soap sent to third-world countries. It recently joined EcoStay, a program that helps hotels measure and offset their greenhouse gas emissions.

"Leisure and business travelers these days are very concerned about their carbon footprint," Anderson said.

International markets are another key target for the county's tourism sector. The tourism bureau said Thursday it will expand marketing outside the United States in 2012.

To improve the skills of its workers, the bureau will start a hospitality training program for restaurant, hotel, retail and transportation workers, and others who deal with visitors face to face.

Sonoma County tourism grew by several measures last year. Hotel occupancy was up more than 8 percent, according to Smith Travel Research, which tracks the sector.

Revenue per available room increased nearly 11 percent, the largest margin since 2006.

After three years of falling hotel rates, the cost of the average room grew 2.4 percent to $111.89, according to Smith Travel.

Bed taxes, which provide most of the funding for the county's destination marketing program, were up 15 percent. The 2011 growth exceeded forecasts, Fischang told guests at the bureau's annual conference at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel.