Opinion: Rural tourism is essential to California’s economic future
Tribune Guest Columnists
Tourism is everyone’s business in California. As the nation’s largest tourism economy, the industry is a major pillar of California’s success with more than $117.5 billion in direct travel spending last year. This supports more than 1 million jobs and generates nearly $9.4 billion in state and local tax revenues.
Millions of travelers explore California’s top tourism hubs such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego each year, creating an economic engine that powers not only these regions but also the entire state. Yet, we often overlook how important tourism is to rural communities, and how the industry helps sustain the California dream. Rural communities are home to the majority of California’s natural resources, providing the state with clean water, clean air and unsurpassed recreational opportunities. In addition, our rural communities boast picturesque landscapes, rich history and a multitude of outdoor activities for every age.
From iconic state and national parks, to hiking and rock climbing, wine and beer tasting and numerous agricultural festivals, there is something for everyone to enjoy when visiting these regions. For those who call these rural areas home, visitors are a leading source of economic prosperity. For example, according to a recent report by Dean Runyan Associates, over half of all Mariposa County jobs (52 percent) in 2013 were generated by travel and tourism. Across the state, travel and tourism is among the top five export industries in terms of employment in all of California’s rural regions.
Additionally, tourism generates local revenue needed to support residents in these more remote and underserved parts of the state. Rural counties rely heavily on visitor-generated sales and occupancy taxes. For example, in Mono County visitor spending supported the equivalent of more than $8,000 in state and local tax revenue per household. Visitors provide 57 percent of taxable sales in the county.
There is a strong incentive to ensure the tourism industry continues to fuel local economies. Despite the Golden State’s allure, competition for tourism is fierce. We can’t simply sit back and hope that travelers will discover the sometimes hidden gems of our vast state. Global marketing efforts to promote California as a travel destination are essential to growing local economies, especially in rural areas. In 2014, marketing efforts sponsored by Visit California returned $327 in visitor spending for every dollar invested by the tourism industry. As the Runyan report shows, many of those dollars bolstered rural economies, fueling the approximately $8.9 billion that was spent in California’s rural counties last year.
All of Visit California’s marketing programs feature our rural destinations. Whether in its through our current television spots, which showcase hidden gems like Burney Falls and the sequoia forests near Santa Cruz, or our annual visitor guide and Road Trips publication, potential visitors are exposed to destinations in all corners of the state. In addition, Visit California works closely with rural counties to help them develop and maintain their own tourism marketing materials, supporting efforts to grow tourism economies at the local level.
One of the best aspects of California as a tourism destination is the diversity of experiences — from world-class urban centers to beaches, mountains and national parks — that attracts travelers of all interests from all over the world. It is specifically that natural beauty — environments rich with precious resources — that are the allure of our rural communities.
While we will always see an influx of tourists to the major gateway cities, it is important that we continue our work to bring them deeper into the California experience. If California’s recent economic growth is to continue, we must support industries that can provide benefits in all corners of the state. We should not overlook the power of tourism to create jobs, opportunity and sustain services in rural California.
Caroline Beteta, is CEO and president of Visit California, and Patricia Megason is executive vice president of Rural County Representatives of California.