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Santa Barbara tourism officials wrestle with promoting the region after disaster

Hugo Martin, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Travel News

When California's biggest wildfire ignited in Ventura County and was followed by horrific mudslides in Montecito, tourism leaders in the region were forced to delay and retool efforts to promote the picturesque communities.

After all, how do you encourage tourists to shop, relax in the sun and sip wine after a tragic disaster that killed 21 people and destroyed hundreds of homes?

It's a difficult proposition in California, which boasts a $126 billion tourism industry but also has a history of calamities such as droughts, earthquakes, fires and mudslides.

That was particularly tricky during the dual disasters that hit Southern California in December and January. Tourism officials first stopped promoting the region altogether and later relaunched their efforts but targeted a new audience that's more likely to visit the region.

"In a crisis like this, often the imagery is more damaging to the tourism industry than the actual event," said Caroline Beteta, president of Visit California, the nonprofit marketing agency for the state.

Even before crews had extinguished the Thomas fire, which burned nearly 282,000 acres in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties, tourism officials in the southern end of Santa Barbara County were planning a multi-pronged marketing campaign to encourage visitors to shop, eat and drink in places such as tony Santa Barbara or quaint, two-exit Summerland.

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The campaign was to include ads on social media and magazines.

But the mudslides that struck Montecito in early January, closing Highway 101 for nearly two weeks, forced tourism officials to pull the plug on the plan.

"Out of concern for our community, everything had to be paused while search and rescue operations were taking place," said Kathy Janega-Dykes, president of Visit Santa Barbara, the tourism marketing agency for the southern region of Santa Barbara County.

Ventura County tourism officials also delayed their promotional campaign.

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