Growing Pains: Myths and Realities of a Tourism Based Economy by Padi Selwyn

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Growing Pains: Myths and Realities of a Tourism Based Economy


By Padi Selwyn

Tourism is the best economic development driver, right? Tourists come, spend their money, and leave. Wonderful, right?

Wrong. New and extensive research is debunking the myths of an economy dominated by tourism.

In early April, Napa Vision 2050 hosted a symposium to explore the benefits and costs of tourism. National experts shared important findings that can help Sonoma County understand the downside of an economy based on tourism.

Myth # 1 Tourism creates income and local jobs.

That’s only partially true. Many low wage jobs are created, but they can be seasonal with workers requiring multiple jobs to survive.

Dr. Medlinger, from Boston University’s Economic Development & Tourism program, discussed how local workers and young people are increasingly displaced from a community when tourism dominates the local economy.

Myth # 2 Tourism benefits everyone.

New research shows that there are only a handful of beneficiaries. According to community planning consultant Eben Fodor, Fodor & Associates LLC: “Growth clearly provides benefits to some elements of the local population – real estate, financial, and land development. Growth generates demand for more housing and commercial space that these businesses build, sell, and finance. “

Business interests represent a politically influential constituency that benefit from increasing local growth, while the rest of us are left with higher rents, pricier restaurants, more traffic, less water, and environmental degradation.

Tourism development can cost local government and taxpayers a lot of money. Public resources spent on roads, sewer, water and infrastructure reduce investment in critical areas such as human services. Recently in Sonoma County, local taxpayers – instead of the businesses generating significant traffic — were asked to pay new taxes to cover road repair – and the voters wisely rejected the initiative.


Myth # 3 More and faster growth will benefit local residents economically.

Most cities in the U.S. have operated on this false assumption. Fodor studied the 100 largest metro areas, representing 66% of the total U.S. population, comparing growth rates over a nine-year period relative to prosperity indicators. Surprisingly, he found that areas with the lowest growth rates fared the best.

The study compared trends in per capita income levels, unemployment rates, and poverty rates with growth rates for each metro area. Faster-growing metro areas had a steeper decline in per capital income than slower-growing areas. Slower-growing areas also had lower unemployment and poverty rates.

Our Supervisors continue to encourage rampant wine industry hospitality development and vacation rentals that displace affordable rental housing.

In October 2014, county officials decided to address the impacts from promotional events caused by a 400% increase in wineries and tasting rooms from 2000 to 2014 — with nearly 70 new applications pending approval. But Supervisors haven’t taken any action, despite promising protective standards and regulations by this spring.

Meanwhile, real estate investors are pursuing event-related permits to boost agricultural land values, creating a free-for-all of applications with a greater emphasis on events and restaurant-style dining.

Exchanging our Ag economy for a rapidly growing tourism economy is changing Sonoma County in ways that if left unchecked, may degrade our quality of life forever. Sonoma County residents need to choose a better future that protects ag land for agriculture, avoids rampant rural hospitality-related development, and insures the survival of our town-centered businesses. It’s time for voters to challenge tourism economy myths.  

Padi Selwyn is co-chair of Preserve Rural Sonoma County, an author, former banker, ad agency owner and marketing consultant. Padi has been a resident of Sonoma County for 40 years.