Sonoma County tourism on the rise

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.

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