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Road trips driving Santa Barbara’s gradual summer tourism recovery

Stearns Wharf
Ryan Fish/KEYT
Santa Barbara has seen a gradual increase in visitors since this summer began.

SANTA BARBARA, Calif. - Summer may be winding down, but tourism in Santa Barbara is seeing signs of life once again.

The area has seen more visitors since the beginning of the summer season, welcome news for a city so dependent on its hospitality industry for jobs and income.

“We have started to see a gradual ramp-up in hotel performance, particularly in the last five weeks,” said Kathy Janega-Dykes, President & CEO of tourism non-profit Visit Santa Barbara.

Janega-Dykes says the city's latest update showed hotel room occupancy is at 65 percent, compared to an expected 85 percent during a normal year.

This month's number, however, is noticeably higher than the hotel room occupancy from July (52 percent, compared to 85 percent during a normal year) and June (47 percent, compared to 79 percent).

Nearly all of that recovery, according to Janega-Dykes, is coming from the drive market. People are taking road trips to Santa Barbara, primarily from across the state.

Several tourists from the Los Angeles area were enjoying the sites and sunshine on Tuesday. A few were up just on day trips, while others were staying in hotels for a night or two.

Janega-Dykes says that beginning Sep. 8, some hotels will be offering a third night free for groups staying at least two nights.

Bike, surfboard and kayak rental shops near the Waterfront say they are seeing crowds similar to past summers, especially on the weekends.

"Now, we're back to normal," said Gonzalo Cortez, who has worked at Wheel Fun Rentals in the Funk Zone for nearly three decades.

Cortez says it's common for Wheel Fun to see its entire fleet of about 50 family vehicles rent on a weekend day.

Chuck Sweeney at Cal Coast Adventures says the kayaks and paddle-boards available for rent on West Beach are also going quickly again.

“At the beginning of this summer, it definitely slowed down a bit,” Sweeney said. “But at this point, you wouldn’t really be able to tell that it’s any different [this year].”

Of course, travel in 2020 is different and presents more risks. Janega-Dykes says Visit Santa Barbara and the city's messaging is focused on promoting safe behaviors for anyone who chooses to visit.

“Responsible travel is absolutely critical,” she said. “Wearing masks throughout our community. Practicing social distancing. It also highlights the areas where people can enjoy wide open spaces here in Santa Barbara.”

The group is also working to attract visits this fall from families who are working or going to school remotely.

“I think people just sometimes want a change of scenery,” Janega-Dykes said. “Get their work done during the day, but enjoy the community in the evening.”

Lifestyle / Safety / Santa Barbara- S County

Ryan Fish

Ryan Fish is a reporter, sports anchor and forecaster at KEYT|KCOY|KKFX.