President Trump may be bad for Sonoma County’s travel industry, speaker warns

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International travel to Sonoma County and other sought-after destinations across the United States could take a hit under President Donald Trump, a top travel industry executive warned in Santa Rosa Monday.

Roger Dow, CEO of the U.S. Travel Association, said Trump’s proposed travel restrictions on six predominantly Muslim countries could have a chilling effect on an industry that has experienced phenomenal growth in recent years.

The half-dozen countries in Trump’s executive order represent a relatively small number of visitors to the U.S. every year. But Dow said talk around the travel restrictions could have wider implications for the nation’s $2.1 trillion travel industry.

“In that rhetoric,” Dow said, “everyone is saying, ‘America is closed to us.’”

Dow’s comments, which followed Sonoma County Tourism’s annual breakfast meeting at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel and Spa in Santa Rosa, were a down note on what otherwise was a morning of upbeat optimism for the local travel industry.

Sonoma County’s average hotel occupancy rate of 78 percent and average daily rate of $166 from January to December of 2016 established new records in both categories. The data from Smith Travel Research, a company that tracks supply and demand for various markets, does not include campgrounds, vacation rentals or small inns. But officials said that anecdotally, occupancy rates appear to be up for those businesses.

Total travel-related spending increased 2.3 percent, to $1.8 billion, in Sonoma County in 2015. Tourism generated $150 million in state and local tax revenue locally and supported more than 19,000 jobs.

Sonoma County’s tourism-related industry is at “unprecedented strength,” said Ben Stone, executive director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.

Statewide, California’s travel industry recorded a seventh straight year of growth in 2016, Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of the tourism marketing nonprofit Visit California, said at Monday’s meeting.

Beteta said travelers to the Golden State spent $126 billion, a 2.8 percent increase from 2015 that helped create 30,000 new jobs. About 1.1 million Californians are employed in the tourism and travel industry.

Local officials say it’s too early to tell whether travel bans and possible action on immigration will have impacts on Sonoma County’s travel industry. Most international travelers book their trips well in advance, so the true impact may not be felt for many months, said Tim Zahner, Sonoma County Tourism’s chief marketing officer.

“We’re going to be proactive and go out and say, ‘You’re welcome here,’” Zahner said.

International travelers to Sonoma County often arrive at San Francisco International Airport, which saw a 46 percent drop in flight searches from international origins following the travel ban announcement.

The White House also implemented a ban on large electronic devices in airline cabins for people flying from airports in certain countries.

The U.S. Travel Association, a travel industry trade group based in Washington, D.C., is projecting a 4 percent decline in international visits in the near future.

Dow noted this isn’t the first time the American travel industry has faced potential fallout from actions or statements made by U.S. presidents.

In 2009, President Barack Obama admonished corporations using federal bailout money not to take trips to Las Vegas or go down to the Super Bowl “on the taxpayer’s dime.” A year later, Obama warned families against gambling away college tuition.

The remarks had a chilling effect on business, according to executives from Las Vegas’ biggest resort companies, and prompted the banking firm Goldman Sachs to move a Las Vegas event to San Francisco.

Dow said the travel industry ultimately experienced growth under Obama, with international arrivals increasing from 51 million in 2006 to nearly 78 million in 2015. Obama’s Commerce Department created the Brand USA organization to help sell America as an international travel destination.

Dow said a visa-waiver program expanded grew under Obama to 38 countries. Travel from South Korea to the United States increased 46 percent after that country was included in the program, he added.

Dow said the average time it takes overseas visitors to schedule visa interviews is two days, down from an average 90 days prior to Obama taking office, and the travel industry wants to keep that momentum going. But he acknowledged that can be a balancing act in an age of terrorism.

“We have to have security, but we also have to welcome the world,” said Dow, the former senior vice president of Global and Field Sales for Marriott International.

You can reach Staff Writer Derek Moore at 707-521-5336 or derek.moore@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @deadlinederek.

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