Officials try to quell fears and revenue loss
By LORIN ELENI GILL, Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Alarmed by as much as $20 million in lost tourism revenue in July due to visitors’ fear of wildfires, California’s state tourism agency said Thursday it is teaming up with Oregon and Washington state to reassure tourists it’s safe to visit.
The states formed the West Coast Tourism Recovery Coalition to remind tourists that the fires have hit mostly rural areas, so will likely not affect their vacations, despite recent blazes that have clogged skies with smoke.
“As we shift into crisis recovery mode, competition takes a backseat,” said Caroline Beteta, president of Visit California.
In a survey by the tourist agency, about 11 percent of 1,000 travelers polled said wildfires prompted them to cancel their trips to California in July, a $20 million loss in that month alone, she said, noting tourists are dissuaded by fire images. Nearly half said they would choose another state to visit, given active wildfires.
But officials from the three states stressed that less than one percent of land in the three states has been affected by fires.
“The real crisis for the tourism industry isn’t the fire itself but the news coverage and conversation around the fire,” Beteta said. “Videos can be alarming and cause people to cancel their trip, particularly international trips.”
Hospitality businesses in and near California parks, such as popular Yosemite National Park, are still reeling from a three-week closure during the park’s peak visitor season. The park reopened on Aug. 14 and the fire that threatened Yosemite Valley is fully contained. In nearby Madera County, officials estimate they’ll lose $10 million this year due to the prolonged closure of a main artery into the park.
Oregon also lost $51 million in tourism revenue last year, according to a 2017 wildfire study by Travel Oregon.
“Fire and smoke may not care much about state lines, but we do care about the experience and the perception that it’s inaccessible due to the fires,” Travel Oregon CEO Todd Davidson said.
The group says it will work together to communicate with tourism businesses, residents and visitors, but officials said there is no ad campaign planned yet.
Washington state tourism officials said the number of trips canceled to their state has not been severe, rather, most tourists are adjusting their schedules. But tour companies have canceled trips to protect customers’ health from poor air quality, said Shiloh Burgess, co-chair of Washington Tourism Alliance.
Air quality conditions are improving in the Seattle region after days of unhealthy smoke and haze but officials warned it’s not over yet. An air quality alert issued Sunday remains in effect until noon Thursday. Air quality was also a concern in eastern Washington, as the state has endured a second straight summer of unhealthy, smoky air from wildfires.
In California, Cal Fire firefighters are gaining ground in the battle against fires in Northern California affecting the counties of Shasta, Trinity, Mendocino, Lake, Colusa and Glenn. The fires have burned more than 1,000 square miles (2,600 square kilometers) combined to date this year. Air quality in San Francisco, Oakland, and Yreka continued to be at unhealthy levels as of Thursday afternoon, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Associated Press writer Chris Grygiel in Seattle also contributed to this report.
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