Travel industry earnings approached $100 million and travel industry jobs grew by 13% in Tuolumne County last year over 2021, both setting new records, according to a preliminary study released last week.
Direct travel spending in the county also grew last year to more than $251 million, but still lagged behind pre-pandemic highs reached in 2019, according to the 274-page report titled “Economic Impact of Travel in California,” which was prepared by Dean Runyan Associates, based in Portland, Oregon.
Overall, the county’s tourism economy grew by 3.4% last year compared with 2021.
Statewide, the California tourism economy grew 32% last year over 2021 and was poised to set new records for visitor spending, employment, and tax generation this year, according to Runyan Associates.
Last year, the Golden State had a 31.7% increase in travel spending, a 16.8% increase in tourism jobs, a 25.3% increase in travel-generated tax revenues, and a 20.8% increase in travel earnings.
The percentages were lower in Tuolumne County, with a 4.4% increase in travel spending compared to 2021; the 13% increase in tourism jobs, from 2,260 to 2,550; a 2.4% increase in tax receipts generated by travel; and a 10.5% increase in travel earnings.
“We’re questioning the validity of the travel spending numbers, we’re asking Dean Runyan to look at those numbers again because in years past, generally our county’s travel spending numbers are on par, more equal with the state numbers,” Lisa Mayo, president and chief executive officer for the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau, said Tuesday. “We are in contact with Dean Runyan to get some clarification.”
Mayo also emphasized the county’s tourism jobs numbers do not include any of those at the Black Oak and Chicken Ranch casino resorts, which employ about 1,500 people between the two.
That’s a significant number of hospitality-oriented, travel-oriented jobs that could be counted in the county’s tourism sector, as part of the county’s hospitality and tourism workforce, Mayo said.
Nevertheless, the new record numbers in local tourism earnings and visitation are perceived as a bright spot bythe private, nonprofit visitors bureau, which is also known as Visit Tuolumne County.
The bureau is celebrating its 40th anniversary this week, at the same time that access from the county to one of its premier attractions, Yosemite Valley, is closed at least until mid-June and possibly into July.
Mayo emphasized that she and her staff are handling the temporary closure with positive, creative alternatives and common sense.
“We got this,” she said Tuesday in a phone interview. “We’re reminding people there are still so many reasons to come to Tuolumne County, and we have so many experienced outfitters and guides along Highway 120 that can help provide guests with alternatives that are just as amazing as going into Yosemite.”
Mayo said she was on Cap Public Radio earlier Tuesday talking about Hetch Hetchy, Wapama Falls, and a side of Yosemite many people haven’t visited before, but “is still truly amazing,” especially considering the historically wet winter and the ongoing snowmelt season right now.
Mayo also emphasized that while Yosemite Valley remains open, visitors from Tuolumne County can still use the El Portal entrance on Highway 140 and the Wawona entrance on Highway 41 to reach Yosemite Valley.
“While access to Yosemite Valley is closed, visitors can still access parts of Yosemite from Tuolumne County,” Katie Kirkland with Visit Tuolumne County said Tuesday. “Hetch Hetchy and Carlon Falls are both parts of Yosemite that will remain accessible from Tuolumne County. It’s important that we let people know that Yosemite is not closed, just our entrance is.”
Visitors bureau staff are urging people with prior reservations to stick to their vacation plans, come to the county, explore hidden gems of Yosemite like Hetch Hetchy and Carlon Falls, and perhaps take the scenic drive along Highways 49 and 140 to reach the El Portal entrance to Yosemite Valley.
Mayo says the county’s top tourism draws aside from Yosemite include Columbia and Railtown 1897 state historic parks, horseback riding at Pine Mountain Lake and other locations, museums and shopping in Sonora and other communities, as well as fishing and other water activities at local reservoirs, including Don Pedro, New Melones, and Pinecrest.
Two to three years of COVID-19 pandemic impacts, from 2020 through last year, have amounted to one of the most significant events ever to hit tourism in the United States, including travel restrictions in the post-9/11 era two decades ago, as well as gas rationing and travel restrictions imposed on Americans and foreigners 80 years ago during World War II, Kirkland said Tuesday.
“The tourism industry was the number one most-affected industry economically during the pandemic,” Kirkland said. “Recently the U.S. Commercial Service referred to 2020 as a travel recession, as 47% of tourism-related jobs were lost in the U.S. And yes, we are still in recovery mode.”
Kirkland said the county’s driving-vacation markets recovered first, followed by national travel. International markets are still being recovered as projected by the U.S. Commercial Service and Visit California, the state’s tourism bureau, she said.
Economic considerations that impacted tourism in the state last year included inflation that hit multi-decade highs in some parts of the world, which increased costs for goods and services, according to Runyan Associates.
Despite the challenges, the state’s travel economy still reached new highs across multiple categories last year. Continued demand for overnight accommodations and increased price inflation led to large gains in visitor spending. Increased spending and a tight labor market contributed to an increase in employee earnings, with both having a cumulative effect on increased tax revenue.
Statewide tourism employment has recovered to 93% of peak employment reached in 2019.
Visit Tuolumne County’s 40th anniversary as the county’s tourism bureau also coincides with an episode of recent scrutiny, in which the county government and its elected leaders have discussed capping funding for the bureau.
The bureau is funded by a portion of the revenue that the county receives each year from Transient Occupancy Tax, or TOT.
Sometimes referred to as a hotel- or bed-tax, the county’s TOT is 12% of the rent charged to guests staying in temporary lodging establishments, such as hotels, motels, Airbnbs, and traditional bed-and-breakfasts.
Currently, the bureau receives a quarter of the county’s previous 10% TOT rate before voters approved a 2% increase in November 2020. The bureau’s cut amounted to $1.75 million last year, most of which it says is spent directly on marketing efforts.
County officials put forward a proposal in December to cap the total amount of TOT revenue that the bureau would receive each year at $500,000.
In February, Mayo gave a presentation about the effectiveness of the bureau’s marketing efforts to the county Board of Supervisors at a public meeting, where a large number of people voiced support for maintaining the current level of funding.
Mayo and Kirkland said they and other bureau staff are ready for what the future brings.
“We are optimistic about working with the county to continue the relationship we have developed over the past 40 years,” Kirkland said. “We are currently working on a contract solution to be able to still market Tuolumne County’s tourism assets and keep generating Transient Occupancy Tax dollars that go to support General Fund expenses, such as essential services.”
The bureau hopes to have a new contract solution wrapped up by the middle of next month, Mayo said.
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 770-0405. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.