Sonoma County tourism sector looks for rebound in international travelers as US borders open

Wine, beer and lodging industry leaders are hoping the new rules will allow the local hospitality sector to rebuild some of what it has lost in the past 20 months.|

Sonoma County tourism industries are laying out the welcome mat, saying bienvenue, willkommen, bienvenido and opening their arms for un abbracio to international visitors now that pandemic travel restrictions to the U.S. have been lifted.

There might even be an “Eh?” or a “G’day” in there.

Beginning Monday, fully vaccinated people are allowed to fly into the country and cross the borders if coming from Mexico or Canada.

Wine, beer and lodging industry leaders are raising a glass and hoping that the new rules will allow Sonoma County’s hospitality sector to rebuild some of what it has lost in the past 20 months since the pandemic halted most international and domestic leisure travel.

The county’s leisure and hospitality sector, which includes restaurants, bars and lodging, took a huge hit from the pandemic, eliminating nearly 7,000 jobs in the year following December 2019, a 27% drop.

“I heard someone say the bucket list doesn’t exist anymore because of COVID … that every day is a great day to take a bucket list trip,” said Sonoma County Tourism board member Joe Bartolomei, whose family owns the luxury Farmhouse Inn in Forestville. “Sonoma County is on the bucket list for lot people.

“I think it’s going to come back. I think the world is ready.”

Some global travelers to Sonoma County are likely booking their flights now for at least one annual tradition: the annual Pliny the Younger beer release.

After skipping 2021, the international sensation Pliny the Younger will be back in 2022, attracting craft beer aficionados from around the world to the Russian River Brewing Co. for its annual release event, typically in February.

Brew company co-owner Natalie Cilurzo said details are being worked out for the event, which draws huge lines to the pub, rain or shine, to taste the world-renown triple India Pale Ale.

“During the 2020 release, COVID had already started overseas, so we noticed a big demographic shift even then” of fewer international visitors, she said.

But drinking alcohol never stopped during the pandemic, and some studies have shown it increased.

“Even when we were in the deepest, darkest depths of COVID and there was nothing to do, we were still seeing people from out of the area,” she said. “Now we’re seeing definitely more of an uptick in domestic U.S. travel. We’re not really seeing a whole lot of international travelers yet, but we expect to see more if things stay mellow.”

Under the new federal policy, fully vaccinated travelers will have to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test taken within three days of flying, and unvaccinated Americans traveling from abroad must be tested within a day before returning to the states, and again after they get home.

With the new rules, California’s tourism and travel industry leaders are beginning to recapture an estimated $28 billion lost to the pandemic.

“This long-awaited date is vital to California’s continued recovery,” said Caroline Beteta, president of Visit California, said in a statement. “International travelers are highly valuable customers, often traveling in off-peak periods and planning trips well in advance.”

Visit California hopes to first attract visitors from Canada, Mexico and the United Kingdom, followed by Germany and France, said Beteta, who leads the nonprofit organization that drives domestic and international visitation to the state.

“Many parts of the state cannot fully recover until international travel returns,” she said. “Gateway cities are especially dependent – for example, 59% of pre-pandemic travel spending in San Francisco was by international visitors.”

Sonoma County relies on global travelers to The City, said Claudia Vecchio, president and CEO of Sonoma County Tourism.

“We benefit from the interest in San Francisco, and certainly when people come up to Wine Country from there,” Vecchio said, describing the city as a global gateway. “That’s how we get the majority of our visitors.”

But the return of international visitors won’t happen quickly because international flights will come back in a phased manner, Vecchio noted. Some travel industry forecasters say it will take until 2024 to restore international inbound travel to 2019 levels.

International spending in Sonoma County in 2019 accounted for about 10% to 15% of overall visitation, Vecchio said.

Spending by international tourists is next to impossible to fully extrapolate, Vecchio said. One of the resources her agency uses comes from VisaVue, a research firm that reports international spending by visitors who use Visa cards to travel to California. There aren’t firms that capture such spending from other cards, such as MasterCard or American Express, she said.

Based on VisaVue research alone, international travelers in 2019 spent about $16 million in Sonoma County. Most of that spending came from Canada ($4.5 million), followed by the U.K. ($1.5 million) and China ($1 million), she said.

Sonoma County Tourism will restart its international marketing efforts early in the year, Vecchio said, starting with the U.K., Germany and Australia, the markets that have historically brought the most dollars to Sonoma County’s economy.

Bartolomei said the Farmhouse has contracts with tour operators in the U.K., making it somewhat unusual for Sonoma County lodging operators. He said he’s already seen an uptick of inquiries from U.K. travelers.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of pent-up demand and similarly, Americans aren’t the only ones dying to travel,” he said. “We’ve always had a good mix of international travelers, although we’re not like San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York City.”

International travelers tend to spend more once they’re here, experts have seen.

“Pre-COVID, international visitors comprised about 25% of overnight visitors, but they generated more than 60% of all overnight visitor spending,” Joe D’Alessandro, president of the San Francisco Travel Association, said in an email.

“International visitors to the Bay Area tend to stay longer and spend more, so their return is vital to San Francisco’s economic recovery.”

The association represents more than 1,300 businesses in and around San Francisco.

Linsey Gallagher, president of Visit Napa Valley, said that prior to the pandemic, 19.2% of the region’s visitors came from international markets.

Sonoma County wine and tourism leaders may take a measured approach to their outreach toward international travelers, Bartolomei said.

“You will have the early adopters who buy a ticket and jump on a plane and explore world,” he said. “But, typically, world travelers are planning further out.

But with COVID, we’ve all learned that plans must be flexible, he said.

“It could all change in a week, and surprise, international travelers can’t come.”

He said he expects that tourism numbers won’t get back to pre-COVID levels until late first-quarter of 2022, barring any further major surges.

Cilurzo, meanwhile, said the Russian River beer makers are planning for a 2021 Pliny the Younger release. But given the unpredictable surges and new variants with COVID, she cautions beer fans: “Book refundable flights.”

You can reach Press Democrat Staff Writer Lori A. Carter at 707-521-5470 or On Twitter @loriacarter.

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education for the North Bay Buisness Journal. Reach her at or 707-521-4259.

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