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Wildfire, climate, virus pose triple-threat to key California tourism, wine industries

Sacramento Bee logoSacramento Bee 9/27/2020 By Darrell Smith, The Sacramento Bee
a sunset over a forest: Thick smoke from the Kincade fire partially obscures the sun as it rises over trees along Chalk Hill Road near Healdsburg, California, on October 27, 2019. © Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times/TNS Thick smoke from the Kincade fire partially obscures the sun as it rises over trees along Chalk Hill Road near Healdsburg, California, on October 27, 2019.

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — In San Diego, tourism industry watchers are bracing for a bleak fall after a shut-in summer that has crushed that city’s businesses. Up the coast in Monterey County, once-optimistic wine growers now must contend with the smoky fallout of nearby wildfires and its effect on that county’s multi-million dollar industry.

And in the desert resorts of Southern California’s Coachella Valley, researchers say climate change will devastate that region’s lucrative tourist industry in the decades to come.

Across California, two of the state’s signature industries — tourism and wine — are weathering the effects of the global COVID-19 pandemic, catastrophic wildfires and climate change.

Hopes were high for a good harvest in Monterey’s wine region rich with chardonnay and pinot noir, Kim Stemler, executive director of Monterey County Vintners and Growers, told the Monterey Herald. That was before the triple blows of the Carmel, Dolan and River fires. The result: “smoke taint” now endangering Monterey’s $190 million wine industry.

“This was lining up to be an excellent season,” Stemler said. With a mild winter and enough water, “this was going to be a good harvest.”

Smoke taint happens when grapes are exposed to wildfire smoke.

That wreaks havoc on the bottled end product, Jason Smith, who owns Valley Farm Management in Salinas, told the Herald.

“It may smell OK, but the back of the mouth gets the ashtray,” said Smith, who estimated about a quarter of wine grape land he farms won’t be able to be used this year. Smith said his pinot noir crop has been “devastated.”

“Devastated” describes San Diego’s tourist economy, battered by the coronavirus pandemic. San Diego businesses have so far lost more than $3 billion in visitor spending, The San Diego Union-Tribune reported.

The newspaper cited the grim news laid out to council members by a San Diego Tourism Authority official who said her industry is in “deep depression.”

“In terms of the economy, we’re in a deep recession and for the travel and tourism economy, unfortunately, we’re in a deep depression,” said Kerri Kapich, the tourism authority’s chief operating officer, the Union-Tribune reported.

As bruising as the year has been for San Diego tourism, the recent Labor Day weekend provided encouragement in the form of sold-out hotel rooms. But industry officials continue to worry about the fall and winter convention season.

Many of those large groups that normally fill the city’s hotels and restaurants during those months will most likely be absent this year.

Hotel business “will now fall off a cliff” because of the meetings and conventions no longer on the calendar, Colleen Anderson, San Diego Tourism Marketing District’s executive director, told city leaders, the Union-Tribune reported.

Extreme temperatures to the east in the Coachella Valley could spell doom for that region’s vital tourism industry, not only chasing away seasonal visitors, but also the thousands who live in the desert cities that make up the backbone of the economy, University of California, Riverside researchers Cindy Yanez, Francesca Hopkins and William Porter detailed in a study released earlier this month in the scientific journal Climatic Change.

“Weather and climate are important considerations for tourists in selecting their destinations, and climate change may impact these decisions with implications for economic revenue in tourism-dependent locations,” the study’s abstract reads.

The University of California researchers analyzed what effect rising temperatures were likely to have on the region’s popular winter season, its effects on outdoor attractions and one of its spring capstones, Coachella, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.

They also looked at the difference between a climate in which greenhouse gases were greatly mitigated and one where heat-trapping gases went unchecked.

The differences were slight by 2050, but grew wider as the calendar moved to 2100, the researchers said. “In both cases we saw big declines in the numbers of days suitable for snowbirds,” Hopkins, an assistant professor of climate change and sustainability, said in a UC Riverside story on the team’s research. “This was much more pronounced in the scenario with no emissions reductions.”

Seasonal “snowbirds” who flock to Palm Springs, Indian Wells and other desert destinations could be chased away earlier by continually rising temperatures during the valley’s high tourist season November through April.

Researchers predicted the “snowbird” season could be shaved by more than one-third by the end of the century as the number of days above 85 degrees during those months is expected to increase by as much as 150%.

The balmy days that bring tourists to the Palm Springs area during the winter and spring months will simply become too hot by century’s end. Yanez, the study’s lead author and a Coachella Valley native, told UC Riverside there is still time to act.

“Weather is a resource that draws in money just like other resources do. If that gets redistributed it could have severe impacts on peoples’ lives both physically and economically,” Yanez said. “We still have time to avoid the worst of these predictions if we can reduce our greenhouse gas emissions today.”


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