The most popular state for tourism in the U.S. endured record wildfires, drought and flooding just this year. “The rate of change has been so dramatic,” says one local scientist. “If I was the California tourism industry, I’d be really worried.”
By Rachel Levin
“Want to go camping in October?” a friend texted in August. Somewhere pretty, she suggested. Big Sur? “Yes, but …” I replied, “how about May?”
Fall used to be my favorite season. I’d traipse up and down California, from coastal cabins to backcountry lakes to wine-country weddings. But in the last few years, fall has become something I rationally, and irrationally, fear. It’s too unpredictable. Too hot. Too dry. Too smoky. Too anxiety-provoking.
I’m not the only one worrying. As climate change continues to ravage our planet, those who like to explore it — as well as the travel industry that supports them — are inevitably affected, too. Especially precarious and popular California. And yet no one seems prepared.
In 2019, California was the No. 1 state in visitor spending in the United States, according to Visit California, the state’s tourism agency, with tourists bringing in $145 billion to the state economy. It was an unprecedented amount. Travelers splurged at Napa wineries and San Francisco restaurants, San Diego surf-side hotels and Sierra slope-side resorts, Airstreams in Yosemite and yurts in Joshua Tree, stargazing in Los Angeles, whale-watching in the Channel Islands — and don’t forget Disneyland! California tourism saw 10 consecutive years of record growth — until the pandemic. In 2020, revenue plummeted 55 percent.
Now, as travel emerges, pent-up demand has many small towns from Ojai to Oakhurst rocking. This mixed-up moment may not be a fair gauge of what’s to come. What is to come? According to Visit California, a full recovery and then some — $157 billion tourist dollars by 2025.
And yet: Wildfires consumed 4.2 million acres of California in 2020, and roughly 2 million so far this year alone. Severe drought forced quaint Mendocino inns to beg guests to conserve water. South Lake Tahoe was evacuated. In Death Valley, two hikers died in August from extreme heat, as did a family of three hiking southwest of Yosemite. This week’s welcomed rain came hard and fast, causing flooding, power outages and rockslides. All of this will continue in California’s future.
Though little research has been done on climate change’s long-term effects on tourism in the United States, much less in California, many scientists see the poorly managed forests through the trees.
“Places that are already hot are going to get hotter,” said Tamma Carlton, an assistant professor of economics at the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management at the University of California, Santa Barbara. We’re going to see extreme heat paired with impacted water supplies, and that will make it really hard for visitors to enjoy the activities they’re there to do, she explained. “Who wants to go wine tasting or hiking if you’re baking?”
Hot and unbothered in Wine Country
One of the state’s hottest tourism spots, Napa County, drew 3.8 million visitors in 2018 (and some $50 million in occupancy lodging taxes), according to Visit Napa Valley, the region’s tourism group. But it’s getting hotter.
Instead of four days of extreme heat each year, it will see 36 — a 10-fold increase — by the end of the century, projected Lisa Micheli, founder of the Pepperwood Foundation, a Sonoma County climate research preserve (which has burned, twice, since 2017). Roughly 42 percent of Napa County was consumed by fire in 2020: land, vineyards and some 1,500 structures were lost, including one luxury hotel (Calistoga Ranch) and much of another (Meadowood). More power shut-offs, rising electricity bills, decreasing water supply, increasing infernos: These are problems that will only persist, Dr. Micheli said. “Whatever is stressed now, is just going to get worse.”
The science is way behind, said Marshall Burke, an associate professor at Stanford University who studies the social and economic impacts of environmental change. “The rate of change has been so dramatic. If I was the California tourism industry, I’d be really worried.”
And yet, it seems, it often isn’t. In Napa, the luxury hotel operator Auberge Resorts, which already operates two resorts in the region, is opening a third there, and another in arid Santa Ynez. And from Auberge to Airbnb to fully booked destination-wedding planners, not many cared to discuss how climate change will affect business.
“Maybe my head is in the sand, but I’m not going to put that negative energy out there!” laughed Sonja Burch, founder of Intimate Napa Weddings Napa Valley, a local wedding planner. Smoke-choked pools? B.Y.O. water to weddings? Last-minute cancellations? “Everyone is just thinking: ‘We’ll deal with it when the time comes’,” she said.
Perhaps reticence goes hand in hand with livelihoods. California’s tourism sector employed 1.1 million people in 2019, according to a report by Dean Runyan Associates, a tourism research firm. “Leisure and hospitality” is one of the top 10 drivers of California’s enormous economy — below industries like finance, manufacturing and health and education, but above the construction sector, according to a 2019 ranking of gross state products provided by the economist Troy Walter.
Visit California has said little publicly about climate change. At a trade show appearance in September, the president and chief executive, Caroline Beteta, briefly discussed the “natural phenomenon” of wildfire. She emphasized that while the fires in Tahoe resulted in mass evacuations, the flames didn’t infiltrate the “tourism corridors.”
Still, Visit California is starting to think about global warming. “Climate change impacts California in profound ways,” Ms. Beteta later wrote in an email. At a recent board meeting the group designated a board liaison, she noted, “to help navigate the industry’s approach to sustainable tourism and sound practices in destination stewardship.”
(California State Parks wanted to discuss all they’ve been doing to help mitigate the effects of climate change, but because of the Alisal fire, staff were unavailable to talk.)
Palm Springs is one of the few sunny tourist destinations in the U.S. climate scientists have studied. Francesca Hopkins, an assistant professor of climate change and sustainability at University of California, Riverside, released a paper last year that looked at how climate change will affect snowbird season in the Coachella Valley. Conclusion: rather dramatically. (“And no one cared!” Dr. Hopkins said.) Daily temperatures between Thanksgiving and Easter have historically averaged below 86 degrees Fahrenheit, but going forward, research showed that there will be far fewer days that fall below that “pleasant” threshold. Palm Springs will become uncomfortable, on both ends of snowbird season, she projected, pushing those average daily temperatures toward 96 degrees, and almost doubling the number of extreme heat days.
More tangibly, the probability of having a high-heat day during April’s Coachella Music Festival will increase. Dancing in the desert in 105 degrees? “Even young people could experience heat stroke,” Dr. Hopkins said. “They’ll move the date.” Eventually, she said, people will start to think: “Why go to Palm Springs if it’s so miserable, when I can go to Monterey?”
Low snow, shorter ski seasons
Most research that has been done on climate change and U.S. travel destinations centers on ski resorts — which, facing decreasing snowpacks and truncated seasons, have had no choice but to assess their future. The number of low-snow years has spiked in the last 30 years, said Geoffrey Schladow, director of the Tahoe Environmental Research Center at University of California, Davis.
“It’s the extremes that will hurt the ski industry,” he said. Extreme lows like on March 29, 2021, when the Sierra snowpack measured 89 inches — well below the 142-inch historic average.
Snow itself has declined as a fraction of the total precipitation in Tahoe, to 33 percent in 2020 from an average of 52 percent in 1910, according to “Tahoe: State of the Lake Report,” research published this year by U.C. Davis. In other words: We’re seeing rain in winter, when it should be snow. “Given that we are at an elevation of over 6,200 feet, have hosted the Winter Olympics and have a snow-based economy, this is a dramatic fall,” Dr. Schladow said. The number does not have to drop to zero, he explained, for Tahoe to no longer be a snow-based economy.
For many out-of-state skiers who must book visits in advance, Tahoe has become too unreliable to bother. Jonathan White, 47, of Boston had a ski trip planned several years ago for Squaw Valley (now Palisades Tahoe). “Lack of snow caused us to bail, and actually just go to Stowe,” he said of the resort in Vermont. (Imagine: New England skiing being better than out West.) Now, if the investment manager wants to ski deep powder, Utah is his destination. The state’s snow, he said, is “much more predictable, when thinking about Western ski trips for our East Coast crew.”
Royal Gorge Cross-Country Resort, Tahoe’s largest — and, at 7,000 feet, highest — Nordic area, has been feeling it. Unlike its alpine sister property, Sugar Bowl, Royal Gorge is “100 percent reliant on Mother Nature,” said Jon Slaughter, the executive director of marketing for the privately owned properties. “It’s scary,” he said, but they’ve been doing all they can, including investing in snow-making machinery for Sugar Bowl and creating “low-snow” cross-country trails: super-smooth, packed tracks the resort can open with just 2 feet of snow compacted to a 6-inch base. The goal is to increase the miles of these low-snow trails in the coming years.
Still, not a lot of U.S. ski destinations “have a climate action plan, or have even done a risk assessment,” said Daniel Scott, research chair in climate and society at the University of Waterloo. In Canada, the Whistler resort has heavily marketed itself as a summer playground — to the point that summer visitors now outnumber winter. A wise idea for Tahoe’s dozen-plus ski resorts, too. Except, wait, wildfire.
Where there’s fire, it’s everywhere
The Caldor fire burned more than 220,000 acres in Northern California this year. The evacuation of South Lake Tahoe cost local businesses $93 million in lost revenue in two weeks, according to the Center for Economic Development at University of Nevada, Reno.
What’s even more disruptive than fire, said Dr. Burke of Stanford, is its erratic sidekick: smoke. Visitors can choose to avoid a place that’s burning, he said, but smoke is, well, up in the air.
This summer, Lori Droste, the vice-mayor of the city of Berkeley, and her family faced a series of doomed trips. In July, they booked a cabin near the McCloud River in Northern California, but had to cancel because of smoke from the Salt and Lava Fires. In early August, they made it to Serene Lakes, in the Sierra — but because of the Dixie Fire, were “basically confined to the Airbnb, because the smoke was so bad,” she said. They planned a do-over, during the Labor Day weekend. “But then Caldor was raging.” They canceled.
Shifts in where we go, when
California is often presented in the media as an object of disaster, as Tom Hale underscored to me. Mr. Hale is the founder of Backroads, the Berkeley-based travel company, which has been operating biking and outdoors-oriented trips in the United States and 54 other countries for four decades. It deals with fallout from it all, from hurricanes in Baton Rouge to floods in Berlin. As we all know, climate change is not a state or country specific issue.
And in California, 2021 has been Backroads’ best year yet; 2022 is booked nicely, too.
“I don’t see natural disasters having a permanent impact on demand,” Mr. Hale said. “Unless the whole state is on fire — which is not the case. As much as newspapers make it out to be.”
Still, he acknowledges there have been some differences.
“Wine country used to be our bread and butter,” said Mr. Hale, “but we’ve seen a decline in bookings in the last five years.”
A Utah State University study, published in September, found that changing climate conditions are likely to affect the recreational use of public lands across seasons and regions of the United States. California’s public lands are likely to see a decline in visitation primarily in the summer and fall. What people do there will change, too.
These results hints at what’s bound to happen beyond the parks — to small towns and big hotels; mom-and-pop restaurants; “taco trails” and hiking trails. “When you put it all together, tourism patterns will be altered pretty significantly,” said Emily Wilkins, the study’s lead author.
A shift is already quietly, anecdotally, underway. In Northern California, low snow, early melts and high winds forced the Shasta Mountain Guides tour company to cancel its most popular route up Mount Shasta in April. Yet Casey Glaubman, a guide, offered words of higher wisdom. “Part of mountaineering is being flexible; adapting and adjusting plans is what it’s all about,” he said. “Things are changing, but it doesn’t have to mean the end of everything.”
It will mean running more rock-climbing trips, though. The mountains aren’t going away, he said. “There will just be more rock.”
It might also mean Napa promoting a lush spring, or Joshua Tree National Park touting starry winter skies. (And me perhaps sequestering myself in San Francisco each year until the winter rains begin.) Ski resorts, wineries, desert spas, woodsy retreats and more treasured California destinations will have to learn to attract visitors in different ways, at different times.
“Tourism in California is going to need some serious innovation,” said Dr. Scott, of the University of Waterloo. “Good thing you’ve got Silicon Valley.”
Rachel Levin is the author of “LOOK BIG: And Other Tips for Surviving Animal Encounters of All Kinds,” and co-author of “STEAMED: A Catharsis Cookbook,” published in May. She lives in San Francisco.
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