According to the VNV stats, the county now hosts 950,000 more visitors per year than it did 6 years ago, an additional 2600 more visitors per day on average. The total resident population of Napa County has increased by 1.4% in that period to 141,000. The yearly tourist population has increased by 33% to 3.85 million. The yearly visitor/resident ratio has gone from 21:1 to 27:1.
As VNV celebrates it will, no doubt, boast about how much residents benefit from the tourist dollars. But for many residents, the specious $1728/ household in generated tourist taxes (used to pay VNV salaries and the increased infrastructure of an expanding tourism population among other things) is a sop to cover the negative impacts of an expanding tourism economy. For those residents the clearing of vineyards for event centers and parking lots, loss of local businesses and housing for boutiques, hotels and airbnb, and roads clogged with tourist traffic and tourism events all represent a lost Eden that money, real or fictional, canít replace.
The rural, agrarian, small-town soul of the county that attracted many here, the
result of a successful economy based on a low-impact agricultural product within a beautiful natural environment, is dying under the tourism onslaught. Residents futilely show up at government meetings, write letters and vote to stop the pain of the loss. Eventually they will probably move to Oregon, because the lust for more money continues to ruin everything - as it always has.
It appears that the Napa hotel lobby is launching a promotional campaign to convince residents of the county that tourism is good for their way of life, despite evidence to the contrary. Visit Napa Valley CEO Clay Gregory extolls the economic benefits that his organization is helping to bring to Napa County. Visit Napa Valley, he says, "is working daily on behalf of the lodging industry with local government officials and partner organizations to help address the collective impacts of tourism on our community."
There are indeed collective impacts on our community. How is he addressing them? "Attracting visitors during non-peak seasons and mid-week in order to minimize traffic and crowding, as well as working to convert day trips to overnight visits." How exactly does spending $6 mil/yr to attract additional tourists minimize traffic and crowding? The effort is really meant to ensure high occupancy rates and maximum traffic all week and all year around. And to insure that the collective impacts of tourism on our community happen 24 hours a day and that the lodging industry on whose behalf he works can continue to expand, with traffic increases and the loss of affordable housing and local shops, and a once serene landscape littered with building projects, and the disappearance of a rural and small-town quality of life.
The TOT, touted by Mr. Gregory as the principal benefit to the residents of the county, will never pay for the increased costs of infrastructure and services needed to serve the new development. As they are now, residents will continue to be asked to pay for bond measures, and tax increases to fix potholes and sewer systems and school upgrades each made worse by the ever increasing tourism and hospitality employee populations.
There is a place for tourism in the Napa economy, as an incidental and subordinate activity to the business of making wine. The amount of wine that can be made from Napa grapes is finite - the number of producing acres in Napa county has barely risen in the last decade. The amount of tourism must also be finite to maintain an appropriate balance. What we need is not a promotional campaign trying to sell residents of the benefits of tourism, or of a promotional campaign to sell Napa county as a tourism destination. If money is to be spent on promotion let it be on a campaign to sell Napa wine to the world beyond the county borders. There are numerous ways to do so other than tourism and many Napa wineries survive quite well in the business without encouraging the urbanization and resident discontent that tourism brings.
As Andy Beckstoffer has said, Napa is one of the few places on earth in which agriculture can survive the pressure of urban development, but it means a commitment to not let more profitable uses - and tourism is a more profitable use - become the driving force in the economy. The first place to make that commitment is to shut down Visit Napa Valley.
The latest Visit Napa Valley statistical analysis of the tourism industry is out; the numbers are good (oddly better, in fact, than the Visit California numbers outlined here). The number of visitors are increasing but at a slower rate than the previous 2-year cycle, it seems. Revenues from tourist venues are way up, so the amount taken in per visitor is dramatically increased. (The median family income of visitors is $161,000 - a bursting tech-startup bubble may have significant impacts.) The number of employees is way up so perhaps service is good, although the daily commute and need for affordable housing is getting much worse.
More visitors seem to like the place as it is than they did 2 years ago. Except for the traffic. What will they make of the 140 or so wineries still in the planning/construction pipeline, or of Napa Pipe, Watson Ranch, and the dozens of other projects destined to fill county landscapes and roads. Sup. Pedroza's question from 2015, what is the carrying capacity of the county?, isn't yet answered.
Tourism taxes are way up as well, but the county still doesn't have enough to repair potholes or bridges, build a jail, upgrade the sanitary system, relieve traffic congestion or build affordable housing, and probably not enough to cover the costs of servicing the 17,000 visitors (12% population increase) driving into the county each day. $6 million of those tourism taxes goes to Visit Napa Valley to encourage more tourism and create more jobs, and to fund the studies.
At the Board of Supervisors on Dec 14th, 2015, Visit Napa Valley presented its financial report for fiscal 2015 and an overview for the first half of fiscal 2016. Tourism "shows healthy Napa County growth in all key lodging metrics". No one can accuse VNV of not doing their job.
Given my now almost manic obsession over the development impacts of ever increasing tourism in the county, VNV director Clay Gregory had some reassuring news: the number of tourists arriving each year is only increasing at about 1.5%. The amount they are spending is rising several times faster, meaning much more money in TID and TOT to deal with a modest increase in impacts. He also made a point of stressing the mandate of VNV to promote off season and weekday events, which seemed a direct link to an answer Sup. Luce gave me several months ago when I asked how the county justified spending $5.6 mil to increase tourism impacts.
I want to be comforted. But somehow the county pursuit of 130 new or expanded wineries under review or approved but not yet built with their cumulative request for 1.6 mil new visitor slots per year does not speak to a goal of just evening out the tourism flow. Just as with the discussions about wineries, the present is often conflated with the future. There are presently 3.3 mil tourists coming into the county each year who feel overwhelmingly they like things the way they are. In this regard Sup. Pedroza asked the right question of Mr. Gregory:
"The way tourism grew in our valley was remarkable, but at a certain point our lens should be, how do we live within the means of what we have. More rooms than this will not survive because of traffic and lack of access...That's information we need to know as we grow. How do we know we are within our capacity."
A question that has been asked before in respect to wineries as well - what is the tourism carrying capacity of the county? We will see if Sup. Pedroza's question finds an answer in Mr. Gregorys' presentation two years hence.