Yosemite National Park-goers raft in the Merced River just before the Yosemite Valley closed in July due to the Ferguson Fire. Samantha Shanahan/KQED
Yosemite National Park-goers raft in the Merced River just before the Yosemite Valley closed in July due to the Ferguson Fire. (Samantha Shanahan/KQED)

California’s Tourism Industry Hit Hard by Wildfires

California’s Tourism Industry Hit Hard by Wildfires

California tourism leaders say the industry is taking a big financial blow as multiple large wildfires burn up and down the state.

In a recent study conducted by Visit California -- a nonprofit state tourism organization -- 11 percent of travelers said wildfires prompted them to cancel trips to California, representing a loss of $20 million to the state's tourism economy in the last month alone.

While California's wildfires have been devastating this year, Visit California president and CEO Caroline Beteta says there's a misconception that all of California is burning, even though the fires are mostly affecting rural areas.

"We've seen a common perception that the majority of California is burning," she said. "And these generalizations have prompted visitors to cancel trips, even in communities hundreds of miles from the fires, and even trips that are months out."

Beteta's organization said Thursday it is teaming up with Oregon and Washington state to reassure tourists it's safe to visit.

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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 back seat," said Beteta.

One of the largest fires to hit California this year was the Ferguson Fire, which ignited in the Sierra National Forest on July 13 and forced National Park Service officials to shut down Yosemite Valley for weeks at the peak of tourist season.

That blaze is now fully contained, but its impact on the communities surrounding Yosemite is still being felt. Nearly 20 percent of visitors to California visit a national park, and that number is even higher for international travelers.

"Anytime a park is closed, the communities around the park suffer," Beteta said. "The most traveled gateway into Yosemite [Madera County] is home to many lodging properties, so that area has been hard hit."

Beteta said Madera County has seen an estimated $10 million loss in tourism revenue due to the closure of Yosemite Valley.

Trent Pederson, Miguel Vega and Yesun Park, residents of Mariposa, took in what they could see at Yosemite's famous Tunnel View viewpoint on Saturday, July 21, prior to the park's shutdown due to the Ferguson Fire.
Trent Pederson, Miguel Vega and Yesun Park, residents of Mariposa, took in what they could see at Yosemite's famous Tunnel View viewpoint on Saturday, July 21, prior to the park's shutdown due to the Ferguson Fire. (Samantha Shanahan/KQED)

If you look at all four of Yosemite's gateway communities and the park itself, the estimated loss is about $50 million.

And it's not just the communities surrounding Yosemite that have taken a financial blow. The largest wildfire in recorded state history -- the Mendocino Complex Fire -- is burning in Lake, Colusa and Mendocino counties, affecting business in some nearby communities that haven't been touched by the blaze.

Farther north, the Carr Fire -- which killed eight people and destroyed more than 1,000 homes -- is burning near the city of Redding, which serves as the gateway to tourist destinations in the Northwest.

While there's still some summer left this year, Beteta says it's unlikely that local economies will be able to alleviate the losses suffered over the past few weeks. July and August are a big time for tourism in California.

"I think the biggest issue for us this year is the fact that we looked at some of these significant fires, though in rural places, they were protracted during three weeks of our high season," Beteta said. "And that's something that you just can't make up."

This post includes reporting from The Associated Press.