Tourism is one of the major contributors to Santa Barbara South Coast's economy. // © 2018 Creative Commons user louisepalanker
Feature image (above): Santa Barbara, Calif., is welcoming travelers to spend time in the destination. // © 2018 Creative Commons user Kalzer Rangwala
The region of Santa Barbara, Calif., recently faced unprecedented natural disasters: the Thomas Fire in December and the Montecito mudslides in January. However, despite these tragic crises, the local community is already well into recovery thanks to the resilience and spirit of its people as well as the support of visitors to the destination.
Below, Kathy Janega-Dykes, president and CEO of Visit Santa Barbara, shares a tourism update on the destination and explains why it’s more important than ever to travel to Santa Barbara.
How has the community of Santa Barbara rallied together following the Thomas Fire and Montecito mudslides?
Immediately during these crises, hotels throughout the region took in evacuees who lost their homes, as well as first responders and commuting workers who were unable to get to Santa Barbara because of the Highway 101 closure [which has since reopened]. They welcomed these guests like family and provided comforting and stabilizing environments where residents could have a sense of normalcy.
Now that the crises are over, we have been closely coordinating efforts with partners throughout the industry — including business associations, the government sector and more — to ensure we broadcast a strong message that our region is resilient and ready to welcome visitors back.
Can you clarify which areas in Santa Barbara were not affected by the fire or mudslides?
Fortunately, aside from Montecito, all other Santa Barbara South Coast cities, including Santa Barbara, Goleta and Summerland were not in the impact zone. Flooding and mudslides did not take place in these cities. All hospitality businesses in these cities, including hotels, restaurants and attractions, are open for business.
The majority of businesses such as restaurants and boutiques along Coast Village Road, the popular shopping corridor in Montecito, reopened in early February after being closed in January following the mudslide.
A few people have asked us about whether the Thomas Fire affected Santa Barbara wines, possibly with the recent Napa and Sonoma fires still on their minds. The Thomas Fire was isolated to the remote mountains above Montecito, some 40 minutes south of the nearest vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley. The wine-growing areas in the Santa Ynez Valley and north to Santa Maria and Lompoc were not affected. The urban winemaking facilities and wine-tasting rooms in the city of Santa Barbara (such as the Urban Wine Trail and Wineries of the Presidio Neighborhood) were also not affected.
Are any hotels still closed?
Thankfully, only three hotels are closed in Montecito: San Ysidro Ranch, Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara and Montecito Inn [as of press time].
San Ysidro Ranch is closed indefinitely, but Montecito Inn is slated to reopen March 1, and Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara plans to reopen June 1.
What are some of the challenges that the region currently faces?
Tourism is one of the major contributors to the economy of the Santa Barbara South Coast. According to our recent visitor profile study, total direct visitor-related spending contributes $1.9 billion to the local economy. Of an estimated 7.2 million total visitors to the South Coast each year, more than 61 percent of our visitors come from Southern California.
With the Thomas Fire in December (when the region lost many visitors due to smoke and ash), followed by the extended closure of Highway 101 earlier this month, our local economy took a double hit and has been significantly impacted.
Because the mudslides attracted significant national and international news media coverage, images of the devastation in the Montecito area were pervasive. Montecito also has many high-profile residents such as Ellen Degeneres, Oprah Winfrey and Rob Lowe, who were active in posting scenes on social media (and in some cases, airing footage on their shows) that showed the tragic consequences of the disaster. So, there may still be some lingering misconceptions about what parts of the Santa Barbara region were affected.
How about next steps for the tourism board?
Now with recovery efforts well underway and as trending news coverage wanes, our goal at Visit Santa Barbara is to strike the right balance of demonstrating support for an unprecedented tragedy while communicating that area hotels, restaurants and attractions are open for business.
The public may not understand that if they were to visit the Santa Barbara South Coast today on a typical visit, they would not even know a disaster had taken place.
Please share how travel agents can best show their support.
We are heartbroken for the families, neighbors and businesses in Montecito impacted by the recent tragedy. However, our community spirit is stronger and more resilient than ever.
The best way to support our community is for visitors to come experience the special place that the Santa Barbara South Coast is. We would love for travel agents and meeting planners to let prospective visitors know that, except for the temporary closure of three hotels (out of nearly 100 hotels in the area), Santa Barbara’s “American Riviera” experience is the same as it has always been. Santa Barbara continues to be an exceptional vacation and meetings destination.
Do you have additional tips for travelers who plan to head to Santa Barbara soon?
Visit Santa Barbara’s website lists suggested itineraries that visitors might enjoy, and the area has some terrific events coming up, including the inaugural Santa Barbara Restaurant Week (Feb. 23 to March 4), an inaugural PuppetPalooza festival of puppets (March 1 to 4) and the 73rd annual Santa Barbara International Orchid Show (March 9 to 11).