Tulare County Tourism Abounds, Despite Fire
The economic crisis in Europe and raging wildfires to the north haven’t kept tourists from making California's Tulare County a summer destination this year.
Local hotel and shuttle operators are saying tourism held steady this year — and while it was a break from steady years of rising visits from overseas and California families, the summer of 2013 is being deemed a success, the Visalia Times-Delta reported.
At the Comfort Inn in Three Rivers, the summer started strong — with 100% of their rooms booked in May, June and July. But when reservations began to fall off for August, manager Shelly Matlock started to worry.
“As we projected out, we thought it was going to be bleak,” she said. “But as it’s turned out, we’ve had a lot of last-minute travelers.”
The city of Visalia, which operates the Sequoia Shuttle, is also seeing steady business this year.
“We’ve had better years but we’re holding the line,” said Gamaliel Anguiano, transit analyst for the city. “The economy in Europe has affected us but gas prices are down, and the economy is improving, so that helps a lot.”
And the Rim Fire burning on the northwestern edge of Yosemite National Park will probably keep local businesses on their toes throughout the month. Matlock said she receives about 20 phone calls a day from guests who want to cancel their reservations because of the fire — but once she explains that the parks are still open, the callers always decide to make the trip.
“I’ve only had about two people decide to cancel after that,” she said.
At Sequoia National Park, part of which is located in Tulare County, officials are fielding more phone calls as travelers with reservations in areas affected by the fire rush to change their plans.
“We may be getting more travel over the holiday weekend,” said Dana Dierkes, park spokeswoman.
Tourism is a hidden powerhouse of the Tulare County economy. According to the California Travel and Tourism Commission tourism food and beverage charges to out-of-area credit cards totaled $96.8 million last year and tourists spent $45.5 million at local campgrounds and other recreational spots. Those figures have risen steadily in recent years, even during the economic downturn.
The county’s tourism industry provides 4,600 jobs within the county and generated $4.7 million in occupancy taxes in 2012, according to state data.
County officials are hoping to capitalize on that trend. Earlier this month the Tulare County Board of Supervisors voted to spend $50,000 promoting the county to tour operators and other industry officials.
Eric Coyne, Tulare County’s tourism manager, said the county is becoming a popular destination for Asian tourists, especially China.
“California had 1 million tourists from China last year — and this is just the trickle,” he said. “It won’t be long before we’re at 5 million Chinese and some of them will be coming to see the parks.”
That trend may have already started. Dierkes said 36,140 cars passed through Sequoia’s Ash Mountain fee station in July, a 20% jump over last year.
Robert Lee, the general manager of the Visalia’s Lamplighter Inn, has also seen a 7% increase this year.
Lee, who is also the chairman of the Visalia Convention and Visitors Bureau, said occupancy rates in the Visalia-Tulare market were at 73.5% in July.
“We’re still getting a fair amount of travel from overseas — Europe and Asia,” he said.