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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

"We definitely paused all of our paid media," said Brian Tucker, executive director of Ventura County Coast, a tourism marketing group for Ventura, Oxnard, Camarillo and Port Hueneme

Instead, tourism officials used their websites to pass along emergency information about road closures and other changes.

The fire and mudslides took a heavy toll on businesses in the region, especially during the Christmas holiday, a peak tourism time.

An exact calculation of the loss in tourism spending has yet to be calculated, but the city of Santa Barbara alone reported collecting $844,000 in transient occupancy tax from hotels and short-term rentals for the month of December, a 26.8 percent drop from the same period in 2016.

Restaurants were particularly affected, suffering sales declines of as much as 50 percent during the fires.

The town of Buellton in the San Ynez Valley was untouched by the Thomas fire, except for several days of smoke-tinged air. Still, the normally popular Hitching Post II restaurant and winery reported a drop in business of about 25 percent during the fire and 30 percent after the freeway closure.

"It's incredible how close you can be to a disaster and still have paradise," said Frank Ostini, owner of the eatery made popular by the 2004 movie "Sideways."

Restaurant, hotel and shop owners near the fires and mudslides worried that images of the disasters on television and social media might give the impression that the entire region -- from Ventura to Santa Barbara County -- was closed to visitors.

The disasters made national news and even pushed their way into entertainment coverage because the mansions of the rich and famous were put in peril.

Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, a Montecito homeowner, invited her celebrity neighbor Oprah Winfrey on her daytime show to talk about the mudslides that threatened their homes.

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