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Wine Country tourism faces a challenge, how to deal with climate change

Perhaps more than any sector of the North Bay and state’s economy, the tourism and hospitality industry and its ability to lure visitors is being severely tested by climate change.

“As an industry, we must acknowledge the climate threat to tourism and live up to California’s well-deserved reputation as the best steward of the environment by encouraging responsible travel and adopting green practices,” Caroline Beteta, CEO of Visit California, said in a Nov. 4 statement. “The opportunity to act has never been greater.”

In an industry which contributed $145 billion to the state’s economy in 2019, seeing it drop by 55% in 2020, state tourism officials are examining how evidence of climate change – such as season after season of wildfires and drought – colors the way potential visitors see wine country. Marketing campaigns are shifting to messages that assure travelers that tourism officials are addressing protecting the planet.

To Linsey Gallagher, president and CEO of Visit Napa Valley, the obvious choice is to highlight the agricultural connection the area already has.

“The guiding light for us is the agricultural preserve that was created in 1968 in Napa Valley,” Gallagher said, “where we knew that the best use of our land was to keep it thriving in a vineyard and agricultural capacity, and that we needed to protect it accordingly.”

One way that’s already being done is through the Napa Green certification program for vineyards and wineries.

Founded in 2004 under the umbrella of the Napa Valley Vintners, Napa Green has since become a standalone nonprofit. And soon, that certification process will shift to the hospitality industry.

“We intend to move forward with that this spring with a pilot program, where we will look at different sizes and classes of lodging properties all throughout the valley,” said Gallagher, who sits on Napa Green’s board. “We’ll have one pilot participant (each) in Calistoga, St. Helena, Yountville, in the city of Napa and in American Canyon, as well as the unincorporated county.”

The concept and its details are in the early development stage, she said, but the goal is to create a certification program that is ongoing, rather than one and done.

“It’s going to be a challenging process to get through the first round of certification,” Gallagher said. “For hotel properties that get there, to maintain that status going forward, they're going to have to show continuous improvement and strive to do better year after year.”

If the effort proves successful within the lodging sector, Napa Green will then take the next step toward rolling out a certification program for other tourism-facing businesses, including restaurants, events and attractions, and transportation companies, Gallagher said.

‘No longer a numbers game’

In Sonoma County, tourism officials early next year plan to resume a shift that began two years ago from promoting the destination as an ideal getaway to emphasizing the need to protect the region’s natural resources.

“It was no longer going to be a numbers game, no longer about just touting the number of people who came into Sonoma County,” said Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism.

And there’s another motivation for SCT’s sustainability work.

“We're always concerned about the next generation and how we're going to continue to be a viable destination for (them),” Vecchio said. “I started to look at how younger travelers were considering travel destinations, how important it is for corporate social responsibility and other kinds of giveback initiatives.”

Visit California, too, is broadcasting the importance of reaching the next generation in order to keep the state’s tourism industry viable, according to Beteta.

“Before the pandemic, 54% of Generation Z travelers said the environmental impact of traveling is an important factor when deciding where to book travel,” Beteta said, citing Booking.com.

She pointed to another Booking.com survey that was conducted in June when California’s lockdown restrictions were lifted. “(It) found 83% of consumers believe sustainable travel is vital, while 61% said the pandemic had increased their interest in traveling sustainably.”

As Visit California leads the way for pushing forward sustainability efforts, Vecchio said she appreciates Beteta’s overarching message.

“We are not going soft on the economy,” Vecchio said. “We are very definitely leaning into the economy. Sustainability is the way to do it.”

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education for the North Bay Business Journal. She previously worked for a Gannett daily newspaper in New Jersey and NJBIZ, the state’s business journal. Cheryl has freelanced for business journals in Sacramento, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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