Sonoma County hotels, airlines enjoy surge of visitors
A year ago, only one commercial airline company flew routes into the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport.
Next month, there will be three. The pending arrival of American Airlines prompted the airport last week to move in temporary quarters for additional check-in and baggage handling, even as it gears up for a $20 million expansion of its terminal and parking.
“2016 was another record year for us,” said airport manager Jon Stout, noting that passenger counts rose almost 30 percent to 339,000. He expects another increase this year of about 10 percent.
The nation’s hospitality and travel sector continues to enjoy good times. And 2017 should be another growth year, with stronger household balance sheets and pent-up consumer demand for vacations, said Jesse Rogers, an associate economist for Moody’s Analytics based in West Chester, Pennsylvania.
For Sonoma County, Rogers said, “the outlook is even better.”
The hospitality industry here has enjoyed eight years of steady growth. It ranks as the county’s second-largest business sector, with $1.82 billion in spending in 2015, according to Visit California, the state’s chief tourism organization.
County hotel revenues have doubled since 2009, which was the hospitality sector’s low point in the last recession. Hotel revenues last year rose 9.5 percent to $282.7 million, according to travel research firm STR, which surveys nearly 6,400 county hotel rooms, or roughly half the various types of lodging units here.
The county’s average room rate rose 7 percent last year to $161.33, STR reported. Average occupancy increased to 77.6 percent from 75.9 percent in 2015. Both numbers were the highest in at least a decade.
Travelers come here because they want to experience Wine Country. That includes visiting not only wineries but also restaurants and makers of craft beer, cheeses and other artisanal foods. And tourists want to get outdoors to cycle county back roads, swim in the Russian River, hike the wooded hills of state and regional parks and walk along coastal bluffs and beaches.
Even last year’s voter approval of an ordinance banning GMO crops is a draw for many travelers, Rogers said.
“I think it just points to the growing appeal of Sonoma as a bastion for organic” and artisanal products, he said.
Along with drawing in visitors, the county in recent years has attracted airlines to fly new routes to and from the airport north of Santa Rosa.
Commercial airline service resumed here in March 2007 with the arrival of Alaska Airlines subsidiary Horizon Air. Alaska now offers daily service from Santa Rosa to San Diego, Orange County, Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle.
Last year, Alaska increased its number of total flights nearly 17 percent from a year earlier. In now offers seven flights a day, Stout said, and the airline this summer may add an extra daily flight to Portland and Seattle.
Last spring, a second carrier, Allegiant, began flights to Las Vegas, plus a short-lived route to the Phoenix area, which ended earlier this month. The airline continues its twice-weekly service to Las Vegas.
And on Feb. 16 American, the world’s largest airline, will become the airport’s third carrier when it begins daily service from here to Phoenix-Sky Harbor International Airport. Service will be aboard a Bombardier CRJ700, a regional aircraft that holds 70 passengers, including six in business class.