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Sonoma County tourism on the rebound, but still below pre-pandemic levels

The newest hotel in Sonoma County isn’t readily visible compared to recent new lodging establishments tucked neatly next to Highway 101.

In fact, the Art House hotel sits in a neighborhood just north of downtown Santa Rosa and resembles a hip apartment building at Seventh and Riley streets that it was originally designed for before its conversion into lodging for tourists.

But visitors have continued to stream into the 36-room structure mostly through online travel agents and customer word-of-mouth since it opened in late summer, said Tony Pace, general manager of the hotel, which is part of the portfolio of local developer Hugh Futrell.

“April was probably the best month we had so far, and May is even going to top that. The line keeps going up as to the amount of business we’re getting,” said Pace, who also manages Hotel E on the downtown square.

“We are starting to see a lot of return business.”

Such optimism abounds as new data shows a rebound for tourism in Sonoma County. Visitors continue to trek here through 2022 as the effects of the coronavirus continue to wane.

The total visitor spending last year in Sonoma County was $1.97 billion, according to a study by Dean Runyan Associates, a research firm based in Portland, Oregon. That spending was a 58% increase over 2020, which suffered the brunt of the tourism downfall because of the initial impact of COVID-19 and the lack of an available vaccine until the first half of 2021.

Still, that spending is not back to pre-pandemic times.

In 2019, the overall tourism spending was $2.2 billion with a local employment of 22,358 workers — which was 4,718 more jobs than last year, according to the study.

In fact, the 2021 figure was still below the 2017 level of $2.1 billion in tourism spending, as well.

The data reveals that while there may be more cars on the road heading out to Bodega Bay or folks walking around Sonoma Plaza, it will still take some more time for the visitor levels to surpass those before the pandemic, said Claudia Vecchio, chief executive officer of Sonoma County Tourism. That is the agency responsible for promoting local tourism marketing efforts.

“We’re still looking very hopeful, but we are not yet back,” Vecchio said.

However, there are signals that 2022 could be the year that tourism turns the corner, even as it started with the omicron wave in January that hindered offseason travel.

Such events as the Pliny the Younger beer release and the upcoming Taste of Sonoma are bringing more Bay Area visitors into the region as they return for such long-standing functions that have attracted large crowds in previous years.

Another area that could result in more spending throughout the economy is an uptick of weddings because those events have a higher visitor per spending level with the hiring of florists, photographers, musicians, DJs and event companies. One estimate has the recovering wedding events industry in Sonoma County potentially generating $200 million in overall spending.

“When I am talking to event planners, the wedding business in Sonoma County is going to be through the roof,” Vecchio said. “Whether it’s people putting it off for pandemic times or whatever reason, they are having weddings.”

The spending also will help local cities and Sonoma County as they receive revenue from hotel room taxes. The Sonoma County Economic Development Board recently said revenues from such lodging taxes for Sonoma County and local cities for the third quarter of 2021 reached $20.4 million, which was an 81% increase compared with the same period of 2020.

“This is one of the few sources of discretionary funding that governments often get. It can be helpful in many ways,” said Ethan Brown, interim executive director of the county’s economic development board.

“Not only is this an indicator of better revenue, but the area is starting to turn a corner here.”

The city of Santa Rosa has reported the overall 2021 total for hotel taxes was at $5.3 million in 2021, which was almost $2 million more than 2020. But that was still below pre-pandemic levels back to 2015, when the city received $5.5 million through such taxes.

The optimism still abounds as the development board noted three hotels are to open later this year within the county. Pace noted his hotels are starting to see more international tourist visits, which was a trickle last year because the federal government didn’t lift restrictions on foreign visitors until early November.

“Hopefully, the international travel will pick up,” he said. “That is a huge market for the entire state of California.”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or bill.swindell@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @BillSwindell.

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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