Sonoma, Mendocino, Lake counties all see boost in visitor spending

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A surge of visitors to the North Coast and other popular California attractions helped propel the state’s tourism industry to its sixth consecutive year of growth, according to a report released on Monday.

California’s tourism sector generated $122.5 billion in direct travel costs last year, an increase of 3.4 percent from 2014, according to preliminary estimates issued by the state Travel and Tourism Commission, also known more informally as Visit California.

“It (tourism) really represents one of the strongest engines for the economy overall,” said Caroline Beteta, president and chief executive officer for Visit California.

Annual tourism spending roughly equals the size of the state budget proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown for the upcoming fiscal year, she noted. The Bay Area was the largest region for tourism in the state, generating $33 billion in traveler spending. Sonoma County, which was part of that nine-county area, reported $1.82 billion in tourism spending last year, an increase of 2.3 percent from the previous year.

“Tourism is an important economic driver for Sonoma County,” said Ken Fischang, president and chief executive officer of Sonoma County Tourism, in a statement.

Napa County, however, experienced the biggest growth in the Bay Area, posting an 8.9 percent increase in tourism spending last year to $1.27 billion.

In a conference call with reporters, Beteta called wine tourism a “critically important pillar” to the state’s tourism industry because it is accompanied by dining and hotel/resort spending.

Along the North Coast, Mendocino County saw a 3.4 percent increase in traveler spending last year to $375 million. Lake County saw a 2.9 percent increase to $165 million.

The increase in crowds can be seen locally at the Charles M. Schulz Museum and Research Center in Santa Rosa. Last year, the museum received 83,100 visitors; it projects to see 93,000 this year, said Karen Johnson, museum director.

The museum is benefiting from special events that lure in visitors beyond the “Peanuts” faithful, such as its “Mr. Schulz Goes to Washington” exhibit that just opened. That exhibition has displays of original presidential-themed “Peanuts” comic strips, correspondence with several American presidents, and campaign bumper stickers, buttons and banners. Visitors can cast a ballot for their favorite “Peanuts” character.

“People don’t know what to expect when they get to the Charles Schulz Museum,” Johnson said. Many attendees walk through the doors and quickly discover that it is a serious museum, not just a display of stuffed animals, she said.

The museum has a large influx of Japanese visitors, so much so that it entered a partnership that opened a Snoopy Museum in Tokyo last month. That museum, a temporary exhibition that will be open for two and a half years, has been sold out for its initial three weeks, Johnson said.

While wine has been a traditional lure for many visitors to Sonoma County, the county’s craft beer scene also is drawing more crowds, especially from the coveted millennial market. For example, the release of Pliny the Younger this year generated almost $5 million in economic impacts from those who traveled from outside the county, according to a survey by the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

The survey found 16,000 people attended the two-week event this year. It’s hosted every February at Russian River Brewing Co. in downtown Santa Rosa. The event is attracting more tourists across the country and the world; The survey found visitors from 40 states and 11 countries this year.

“I think this is happening every day around the nation as craft beer is becoming more popular,” co-owner Natalie Cilurzo said.

That’s also true in Mendocino County, which hosted the Boonville Beer Festival last weekend that attracted up to 7,000 people, said Joe Webb, interim general manager for Visit Mendocino County.

Anderson Valley Brewing Co. on the outskirts of Boonville brings in beer lovers, especially those attracted to its scenic taproom with mountain views. It hosted the festival with Larkspur’s Marin Brewing Co.

Anderson Valley has become an increasingly popular destination for other events such as wine festivals and concerts. It is known for its pinot noir wineries, cider-makers and even a recently opened cheese maker, Pennyroyal Farm. These festivals have typically attracted locals, but they are increasingly bringing in people from all over the Bay Area.

“It’s becoming more Sonoma County and Napa oriented,” Webb said of the crowds.

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

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