“Tourists go home,” was the message spray-painted in red letters on the side of a trailered boat close to the freeway, just before the official “Welcome to Healdsburg” sign.
The crude greeting two years ago was part of a pushback from locals who felt tourism had reached a tipping point, whether from too many tasting rooms, traffic congestion, lack of parking or rising housing costs linked to second-home buyers.
The boat off the side of Highway 101 appeared only briefly but left an indelible impression, to the point one hotelier mentioned it last week discussing the conflicted feelings toward his industry and the latest buzz phrase in Healdsburg: “sustainable tourism.”
The term has emerged as residents try to strike a balance between an industry that bolsters the economy, but that some fear is putting small town charm at risk from too many visitors.
It’s part of a discussion that’s been heard in other Wine Country favorite destinations in the Sonoma and Napa valleys.
Those warning of excessive tourism raise the specter of “Napafication” — the prospect of clogged roads, loss of rural character and out-of-scale, wine-related events.
But ask 10 people what “sustainable tourism” is and you will get 10 different answers, says Healdsburg Mayor Shaun McCaffery.
“Ultimately, at its core, it’s where residents of the town and visitors exist in harmony,” he said.
Janis Watkins, a Healdsburg attorney who is part of the coalition sponsoring a “tourism sustainability forum” 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Healdsburg Community Center, said it’s about trying to manage the industry.
“I would say Healdsburg is still a superb small town. But we have growth coming which can’t be stopped because of what’s already baked in,” she said referring to three hotels approved but not built.
Watkins calculates those new hotels will add 400 more rooms, roughly doubling the existing number among the town’s 31 hotels, motels and inns.
She and others have called for a moratorium on approving new hotels until a study can be conducted on the positive and negative impacts of tourism.
While City Council members favor a study and survey of tourism’s effects, there does not appear to be support for a moratorium.
“You take tourists out of the town and you will see property values and everything else fall,” said City Councilman Gary Plass.
“It’s what our business is, what’s kept up our standard of living and funds park and recreation” programs.
Longtime residents like Plass remember a much different time in Healdsburg decades ago, when there were boarded up storefronts around the historic Plaza and biker bars symptomatic of the ailing business district.
With the help of urban planners and architects, the City Council in the early 1980s adopted a goal to develop tourism to jump-start the economy and take advantage of Healdsburg’s scenic setting and the viticulture in nearby valleys.
The plan worked.
“We kind of live in this Eden that for the longest time we didn’t know we had. All of a sudden we’re on the map,” McCaffery said. While Sonoma County is a tourism destination, he said Healdsburg is “sort of (a) crown jewel.”
In addition to wine, he said “we have amazing restaurants and a lot of fruits and vegetables and livestock grown around here, served up in the local restaurants that are the best in the world.”