El Capitan

Early estimates show Tuolumne County tourism was down 45 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, a significant dent in the county’s most lucrative private sector industry, and the county’s tourism bureau is facing more challenges this year. This is El Capitan and the Merced River in Yosemite Valley early Dec. 6, 2020.

Early estimates show Tuolumne County tourism was down 45% in 2020 compared to 2019, a significant dent in the county’s most lucrative private sector industry, and the county’s tourism bureau is facing more challenges this year.

The new numbers, coming in the first days of the new year, help underscore how the COVID-19 pandemic and local, state and federal governments’ handling of a public health crisis that has contributed to the deaths of more than 367,000 Americans in the past 11 months, have helped devastate local economies in the Mother Lode.

Reports on 2020 tourism’s effects on local and state economies are not yet complete, but transient occupancy taxes in Tuolumne County were down about 45% last year, a plunge that is reflected in a 45% drop in marketing funding and deep staff reductions for the county’s tourism bureau, Lisa Mayo, president and chief executive officer for Visit Tuolumne County, said Friday.

Tourism in the county “was hit really hard right away when we shut down initially,” Mayo said in a phone interview, reflecting on how early efforts to slow the first surge of the pandemic began in mid-March. “Based on TOT lodging taxes, we’re off about 45% from the previous year.”

On one level, grim local tourism numbers for 2020 can be viewed as a glass half-empty or half-full. It’s significant that the county still managed to attract 55% of the tourism it did in 2019 in the midst of a history-making pandemic with statewide travel restrictions, as well as closures and since-rescinded reservation requirements in Yosemite National Park, one of the top tourist destinations in the Central Sierra and the Golden State.

But there is no sugarcoating the fact that in a year dominated by the pandemic and reduced tourism, Visit Tuolumne County had to reduce its staff from 11 individuals to four. The seven individuals who had to be let go included two full-time employees, Mayo said.

Short-term in the first months of 2021, among the biggest challenges facing Visit Tuolumne County — and all the local businesses that are geared to serve winter tourists in the Mother Lode — are the state’s updated travel restrictions that took effect Wednesday.

The Jan. 6 travel advisory notes that COVID-19 continues increasing in many states and other nations, and recommends all Californians “should avoid non-essential travel to any part of California more than 120 miles from one's place of residence.”

The state advisory explicitly states that non-essential travel includes travel “that is considered tourism or recreational in nature.” In addition, it states that non-essential travelers “from other states or countries are strongly discouraged from entering California.”

Yosemite National Park is supposed to be closed to visitors at night since early December, to comply with the current regional stay-at-home order that is based on intensive care unit availability in the 12-county San Joaquin Valley region. 

Still, the park is open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and within reach for millions of people who live 120 miles away or closer. There are roughly 7.2 million residents living in the Central Valley alone. Another 7.7 million people live in the Bay Area, about 150 miles from the park.

Regardless of Yosemite tourism this winter, it’s clear from last weekend’s crush of snow-play visitors up the Highway 108 corridor, as well as crowds of skiers at the recent opening of Dodge Ridge Ski Resort, that the county remains a popular destination for visitors coming to the Mother Lode, where some will inevitably spend money on gas and food.

Longer-term this year, whether and when current vaccine efforts will successfully quell and eventually erase the COVID-19 pandemic remains to be seen.

In the meantime, Mayo said tourism in the county was hit hard and hit early by the pandemic in 2020, and having to let go of most of Visit Tuolumne County’s staff once it became clear it was going to last longer than just a month or two was an early sign of how bad the situation could become.

Temporary closures of bureau’s offices and visitors centers in Sonora and Groveland that began in March have extended into the new year, Mayo said. Remaining tourism bureau staff are working from home and staffing the downtown Sonora office one at a time, but the office remains closed to the public.

“It will be a long recovery for the industry,” Mayo said Friday.

Another challenge the bureau faces this year is “not being able to market Tuolumne County as a tourist destination at this time and not knowing when we will be able to again.”

Coping with ever-changing compliance issues, like most businesses are having to these days, is also a challenge that will continue in 2021, Mayo said.

Asked about bright spots and new opportunities that present themselves, even in the midst of the ongoing pandemic, Mayo said she and her staff have the platform to educate the public about health and safety through the bureau’s large social media following.

The recent winter holidays and remaining winter season also offer opportunities for a “massive in-market focus on shopping, dining, and playing local,” Mayo said.

Recent initiatives have included a local Healthy Pledge campaign to help promote businesses following new health and safety protocols, at www.visittuolumne.com/tuolumne-county-healthy-pledge, and a Shop Local from Home Campaign for the Holidays and beyond, at www.visittuolumne.com/online-shopping.

Keeping up with vital public health recommendations, guidelines, and restrictions have also spurred “lots of communication with our membership including updates on traveler sentiment and projected trends and financial assistance information,” Mayo said.

The bureau’s staff also view their ability to inspire future travelers through social media and the web as another opportunity going forward this year.

“Future travelers will be looking for places like Tuolumne County where there are wide open spaces, a plethora of outdoor activities and adventure, a place where they feel safe,” Mayo said. “Once people can travel again, there is predicted to be a boom in small meetings — we have so many opportunities for this throughout Tuolumne County. Having a well-established network with our members and the community has been a large benefit.”

Tuolumne County Restaurant Week is coming up Jan. 22-31, Mayo said. The campaign will include focuses on “Dining Local While Dreaming Global,” featuring international dishes created at local restaurants, and specials for the week from restaurants, wineries, bakeries, and other businesses. For more information go to www.visittuolumne.com/ online.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.net or 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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