With pandemic impacts easing, tourism outlook looks bright for 2022 in Southern Santa Barbara County
But, leaders at local tourism summit say there are still major concerns, including another possible COVID-19 surge, getting enough labor, and high gasoline prices.
It’s a bright, sunny morning at Santa Barbara’s East Beach. Peter Herrera is walking along Cabrillo Boulevard, enjoying the day. The Minnesota man is taking a few days off from work.
"Get away from stress...came with my girlfriend...thought that we'd have a mini-vacation," said Herrera. Herrera says he’s vacationed in Santa Barbara before, and has no big plans other than to relax.
Visitors like Herrera and his girlfriend are good news for Southern Santa Barbara County. Tourism is a $1.9 billion annual industry on the South Coast, supporting over 13,000 jobs. But, like many things, it's been impacted by the pandemic.
Tourism officials say hotel bookings are strong, and the outlook is looking good as the region moves into its traditionally busiest time of the year.
Kathy Janega-Dykes is President and CEO of Visit Santa Barbara, the tourism trade group for Southern Santa Barbara County. The organization held its annual summit Wednesday to talk about the state of the industry.
"It's been a roller coaster ride for the last two years, but the future looks very bright," said Janega-Dykes. "The Omicron variant did pause some of the travel, but we are starting to see visitors returning to Santa Barbara."
With the average hotel and motel room rate up in Southern Santa Barbara County by 20%, it’s already pushed monthly revenue past pre-pandemic levels. It’s expected the percentage of rooms in use will also top pre-pandemic bookings this summer.
Statewide, revenue and occupancy is still trying to rebound. Janega-Dykes thinks the Santa Barbara area benefited during the pandemic because many Southern Californians passed on international trips and instead took weekend getaways.
To encourage tourism from nearby areas, Visit Santa Barbara did the biggest marketing campaign in its history.
Some restaurant owners say they are also seeing improvement. Jack Mathis owns downtown Santa Barbara’s Chase Restaurant.
"If we don't have another wave of COVID... I think with the people who've been pent up, it's going to be the biggest summer ever," said Mathis.
Nadia Ajlouni really took on a challenge. She bought The Blue Owl restaurant in Santa Barbara 14 months ago, in the middle of the pandemic.
Ajlouni says the biggest problem she, and many in the hospitality industry are facing is finding, and keeping qualified employees.
"We would put out ads, and hire at a rate that's higher than a lot of other restaurants out there, but still there was no labor... the labor force was really limited," said Ajouni. "It's a little better (now) than it was before, but it was not a good time."
Janega-Dykes, from Visit Santa Barbara, says they are hearing about the labor issue from everyone. She says the area might be down by as many as 1,800 employees. The organization is trying to help, with its first ever job fair being planned for April.
The Santa Barbara South Coast Hospitality Career Fair will take place Wednesday, April 20, from 11am-3pm at the Hilton Santa Barbara Beachfront Resort.
Visit Santa Barbara’s annual tourism summit was upbeat. But, there were some cautions. Tourism officials say there is of course concern about potential new pandemic issues, the labor question, and gas prices. And, they say to keep the region competitive with other places, the community needs to better address homelessness.