Tourism slowly recovers in Napa Valley and Santa Barbara this pandemic summer

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In Napa Valley, wineries are currently open for outdoor tastings, and everyone is required to wear masks. Photo by Pixabay.

The coronavirus pandemic has dramatically altered what’s usually vacation season for millions of people. International travel isn’t an option because U.S. residents are not welcome in most countries. Domestic flights are down as well. Many travelers say they’re uneasy about spending hours in close quarters on airplanes. But people are still traveling this summer — they’re just staying closer to home.  

KCRW talks about this summer’s travel trends with Kathy Janega-Dykes, CEO of Visit Santa Barbara, and Linsey Gallagher, president of Visit Napa Valley.

KCRW: Before the pandemic, tourists spent  an average of $1.9 billion annually in the Santa Barbara area, and more than $2.2 billion in Napa. Describe a regular summer season in the Napa Valley.

Linsey Gallagher: “We are normally very busy in the summer, and over the course of a normal year welcome almost 3.9 million people to the Napa Valley, in a valley that has a population of only 140,000 residents. Certainly the summer and fall harvest season tend to be the busiest for us, and our hotel occupancies are often north of 90% at that time of year.”

What would Santa Barbara be experiencing this time of year?

Kathy Janega-Dykes: “Hotel stays right now are down about 40%, so quite different than previous summers. Santa Barbara’s south coast occupancy, as of the latest report, was about 51%. … It typically would be … about 88%.”

What happened to Santa Barbara’s travel sector in May and June,  the months after the pandemic?

Kathy Janega-Dykes: “Tourism and leisure travel weren't permitted to reopen at hotels until June 12. And that's when we launched a very soft marketing campaign. Our resources are very limited right now. So we're being very specific on who we're targeting. And primarily it’s people in the south, and then also to the north, who have an affinity to Santa Barbara. Compared to performance at some of the other southern California destinations, particularly the beach towns, Santa Barbara has been doing moderately better.”

Is Napa Valley experiencing similar numbers? Hotel occupancy was down 16% there in May. 

Linsey Gallagher: “Absolutely. Our hotels essentially closed for anything other than essential travelers. We were able to open again for leisure travel starting on June 6, so a couple days ahead of some of the other destinations in our state. And we've seen occupancy slowly return up to about a 50% average rate right now. We're seeing 70% occupancy on weekends and more like 40% during the midweek.”

There’s outdoor dining and limited capacity shopping now. Is travel rebounding, are people coming back? 

Kathy Janega-Dykes: “We are definitely seeing [it], and it's still a moderate increase. I think what's really important right now for our area businesses is the way they have been able to pivot. ... Downtown Santa Barbara has totally transformed itself. It used to be an open street corridor where vehicles went both ways. And now we've completely closed that street and it's become a promenade, and that's really encouraged our visitors to travel to this area. 

I think what’s really important for Napa and for Santa Barbara is that we have wide open spaces. This is what our visitors are looking for. The other thing that I've noticed with the new State Street promenade too is that it's really attracted some local residents.”

Napa Valley has ample patios, but has the city gone further and shut down roads so people can spread out more?

Linsey Gallagher: “Yes, absolutely. We have that happening in downtown Napa as well as the towns of Calistoga, Yountville, St. Helena and American Canyon. And the county has relaxed those outdoor patio requirements as well. 

We've had the same thing with our wineries. There has been a little bit of confusion of late whether or not the wineries are open. And I just want to reiterate that our Napa Valley wineries are in fact open for outdoor tasting experiences. You'll be seated outside with plenty of physical distancing between parties. We also have a mask ordinance in Napa County. So everybody is expected to be wearing a mask and to comply with all of the social distancing protocols.”

The state's tourism agency, Visit California, is focusing on in-state travel, given the pandemic. Has it helped? 

Linsey Gallagher: “Napa Valley and Santa Barbara and all of the destinations within California have a long standing partnership with Visit California. We certainly have historically been the beneficiary of all of the great communication and advertising work that they do on a global scale. But we are so thankful and grateful that they are able to pivot and shift their strategy to encourage visitors to stay within California and take a road trip in their own backyard. That is certainly going to be a very beneficial call-to-action for us to sit underneath as Visit Napa Valley.”

Kathy Janega-Dykes: “Visit California has been a tremendous partner and has really helped us in previous years when we have faced a crisis. … Following the Thomas Fire and the Montecito debris flow, they were really one of the critical partners that helped us recover. And frankly, the shift in promoting in-state travel is really just a great benefit to all of us, particularly Napa Valley and Santa Barbara, where the largest share of our business really comes from within California as well too. 

And I think what we're going to see are people staying a little bit longer in some of our resort hotels. So typically, their customers would have maybe gone abroad or over to Hawaii, but instead are traveling to Santa Barbara and that becomes their official vacation for the summer instead of just a weekend getaway.”

Are people using Napa Valley as a home base for exploring Northern California? 

Linsey Gallagher: “Yes, we're seeing the same positive trend. ... Guests will book maybe a two or three night stay in Napa Valley. And once they get up there and realize the great wide open spaces that we have, as well as doing what everybody's doing, which is working from home, they're finding that they can work pretty efficiently from Napa. And as a result, we're hearing many hotels report that the length of stay, although it was initially booked for two or three nights … is evolving into a five, seven, 10 day stay.”

Kathy Janega-Dykes: “One of the things that we may see going into the fall season, when the children can't actually go to school physically but actually will be learning from home, is that there may be more travel during the fall period, where families can go ahead and travel to hotels. And then the children can certainly go ahead and learn virtually. The families can enjoy the destination following the classroom time. So there may be some interesting trends that we may see in the fall with a spike in midweek travel.”



Matt Guilhem


Jennifer Wolfe, Amy Ta