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Pandemic, wildfires take heavy toll on SLO County tourism

Angel Russell
Visitors at the newly-reopened pier in Pismo Beach.

Despite an ongoing pandemic and wildfires causing smoky skies, people are still visiting the Central Coast—but overall tourism is sharply down compared to years' past.

On a visit from Bakersfield, Jonathan Gallardo and his three friends said they were slightly disappointed driving in to find out how smoky it is.

"As we approached the ocean, you can’t even see the ocean," Gallardo said. "We assume the ocean is out there somewhere. It kind of sucks.”

Gallardo and friend Alex Lin said despite the wildfires and dangers of COVID-19, they still wanted to travel, because they wish they could live along the coast. 

“It’s nicer here, it’s usually cooler here," Gallarado said. "I think fundamentally it's probably better to live here.”

Lin said the cost of living prevents her from moving to the coast.

"It’s too expensive, unfortunately,”Lin said. 

This group of friends are among thousands who travel to SLO County each summer. But despite how busy the beaches look on weekends, tourism is down this year.

Chuck Davison of the county-supported tourism office Visit SLO CAL said the organization stopped all advertising back in March, and didn’t encourage visitors to come to the county.

“It just wasn't the right time to be sending a message to travel," Davinson said. "Obviously, when you weren’t supposed to be, but also with people just trying to get their arms around what the pandemic was.”

Davison said hotel occupancy in San Luis Obispo County dipped to a low of just under 16 percent in April.

“We’ve seen that start to bounce back now," Davinson said. "When we get to the month of July—the most recent numbers—occupancy ran 60.4 percent, compared to a year ago in July where we were running 81 percent.”

Davison said that last week, Visit SLO CAL started advertising again. But messaging has changed, with ads and social media giveaways encouraging people to follow COVID-19 guidelines while vacationing. 

“We are trying to make sure that we are educating those individuals who are coming to travel safely," Davnison said. "But without tourism our community would not be what it is. It simply wouldn’t survive the way it has.”

Davison said he understands concerns about welcoming tourists during a time of a pandemic, but he also said there’s not enough locals to keep so many restaurants and mom-and-pop businesses open without them. 

“We know that there is a balance in making sure we are helping to push back the COVID cases and making sure this is not getting worse," Davison said. " But also making sure these businesses don’t close for good.”

After agriculture, tourism and hospitality is the second biggest industry in San Luis Obispo County.

Angel Russell is a former KCBX News reporter who started her career in journalism as a reporter and producer for KREX on Colorado's Western Slope; she later moved to the Central Coast to work for KSBY as weekend anchor and weekday reporter. She holds a BA in journalism from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. In her spare time, she enjoys reading, and playing guitar and piano.
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