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COVID-19 pandemic killing tri-county tourism

By   /   Friday, April 3rd, 2020  /   Comments Off on COVID-19 pandemic killing tri-county tourism

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An unprecedented level of uncertainty has gripped the travel and tourism industry across the Tri-Counties, forcing temporary shutdowns for some and a re-evaluation of plans for companies, workers and tourism promotion agencies.

No one knows when business will go back to normal, and it’s hitting the tourism industry hard when bookings should be strong.

Visit Santa Barbara President and CEO Kathy Janega-Dykes compared the overall impact to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and said for the travel industry, the coronavirus is worse.

“We’re in a very dark space,” Janega-Dykes said. “We just don’t know when this will end.”

Some of the region’s flagship hotels, the Four Seasons Resort The Biltmore Santa Barbara and Rosewood Miramar, have temporarily closed as a result of the virus. The Biltmore had plans to reopen April 15 at press time, but the Rosewood didn’t announce a reopening date on its website.

Other hotels, like the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort, are offering steep discounts, with rates as low as $160 on rooms that would otherwise go for $500-$600 during Memorial Day weekend.

On its website, Visit Santa Barbara announced most events through early May have been canceled or are being rescheduled, and gave people information about places that are still open — namely, restaurants people can order takeout from or outdoor exercise options.

Janega-Dykes said Visit Santa Barbara is working to promote local companies, brands and artists by featuring them on the organization’s social media.

“We want to make sure businesses not only survive, but are well-positioned to thrive when life goes back to normal,” she said.

The hospitality sector of the tourism industry isn’t the only part that’s been burned badly by the health crisis.

Airports are considered essential businesses, so they must stay open, even as ridership has cratered in the past month.

Deanna Zachrisson, airport business development manager at the Santa Barbara Municipal Airport, said ridership has fallen about 90 percent, which is consistent with the rest of the country.

“We are almost at a standstill,” Zachrisson said. “It’s so close to zero that we’re not actually sure it’s zero or if we’re going to be processing 100 people a day.”

This comes after a stellar start to the year. January was up 38 percent from 2019 and February was up 45 percent.

Much of the airport’s revenue is tied directly or indirectly to commercial flying, including parking fees, revenue from the gift shop, gas sales to airlines and other items like food sales and rental car fees. With activity grinding to a halt, it’s going to be extremely hard on the airport’s budget.

“It’s going to be tough here for a bit,” Zachrisson said. “The issue is cash flow. Your cash flows are completely cut off.”

The airlines have cancelled many of the flights to and from tri-county airports, and Zachrisson said those that haven’t been canceled are almost empty.

“All of the airlines are operating completely in the red, and they’re hemorrhaging cash every day they fly these planes with no one on them,” Zachrisson said.

She also compared the damage to 9/11 and found this worse; whereas 9/11 caused an immediate shutdown for three days, the health crisis is making airlines and airports “limp along.”

“We’re not at the bottom yet,” Zachrisson said, “and we don’t know where the bottom is.”

Other airports in the region are also feeling the pain. Kevin Bumen, director of the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport, said at least four or five flights have been cut from the schedule, if not more.

The airport has to deal with costs of doing business whether or not people are flying.

“Whether you have one flight per day or 50 flights per day, a lot of the expenses an airport can have aren’t related to its level of activity,” Bumen said. “We don’t have a lot of expense to cut.”

Bumen and Zachrisson are both looking to the recently-passed federal stimulus bill for relief, but details about what the aid is going to look like haven’t been announced yet.

Of all the region’s commercial runways, Santa Maria Public Airport is possibly the one that’s been hit hardest. The airport only served one airline, Allegiant, which dropped its three flights a week to Las Vegas. Santa Maria was also supposed to see United Airlines resume service at the airport this summer, but the airline said those plans have been moved back to Oct. 1.

Even outdoor attractions have been shut down because of coronavirus concerns. The state announced on March 29 it was closing vehicle access to all 280 state parks to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Counties like San Luis Obispo have also taken measures to close a few other high-traffic outdoor areas. SLO County closed all campgrounds through April 30, and also shut down Cayucos Pier.

“In order to protect the public health of our county, its best we discourage people from coming here to recreate,” said SLO County Emergency Services Director Wade Horton during a March 26 news conference.

El Chorro Regional Park has also been closed, but that’s because the county has decided to use the park as a place where it can treat homeless people who have coronavirus but don’t yet need hospitalization.

Ventura County has followed SLO County’s lead. It closed all of its County Day Use Parks on March 31, and all county campground parks have to close by April 3. Everyone living in a campground will have to leave by then, except those who count the campground as their primary residence.

While both counties have taken steps to reduce the areas where a lot of people could gather and cause additional outbreaks, officials are still encouraging people to get out and exercise outdoors as much as possible.

They just want to make sure people are keeping a safe distance from each other.

“This temporary inconvenience will help us get back to normal faster,” Horton said.

• Contact Amber Hair at

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About the author

Staff Writer at Pacific Coast Business Times, Inc.

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