Sonoma County grapples with tourism’s effect on economy and environment

“We could better support the eco-tourism sector, which has a lighter impact and needs a pristine and rural landscape to succeed.”

Sonoma County grapples with tourism’s effect on economy and environment

By Suzanne Doyle & Mary Davison Sonoma Group


Tourism brings money into Sonoma County. It supports restaurants, the hotel and wine industries and regional parks and creates jobs and small businesses that benefit the whole county. But tourism also creates more traffic, strains on local emergency service budgets, pressure to develop wine tourism centers in undeveloped areas and conversion of housing to vacation rentals, which can slowly change the character of Sonoma County for the worse.

Last year, almost 11 million people visited Sonoma County, including nearly 5 million overnight stays. Those numbers are projected to increase if the economy remains stable. With this growth, the balance can tilt away from preserving our quality of life and protecting the environment from development throughout the county. Gridlock on backroads from big events like barrel tasting weekends or the Ironman triathlon are becoming more frequent. The once quaint downtowns of Healdsburg and Sonoma are now full of luxury retail stores and hotels that locals can’t afford. Emergency response for tourists in hard-to-reach areas like the coast carry significant costs without needed funding being  provided. 

Sonoma County has more than 400 wineries, which creates a lot of competition, and corporate takeover of smaller wineries squeezes out the mom-and-pop operations which tend to take better care of the land and make better neighbors. Wine events, including weddings, concerts and other private events that are not directly agricultural, become essential income. Traffic from these events located on narrow rural roads create a public safety hazard.

Sonoma County is facing an affordable housing crunch, and increased purchases of second homes and conversion of housing to short-term rentals make our housing problems worse.  A 2018 Press Democrat article pointed out that there were 2,100 known short-term rentals in the county’s jurisdiction. Lack of available affordable housing stock is leading to pressure on Urban Growth Boundaries, which are voter-approved greenbelt buffers to curtail urban sprawl, and pressure to increase building in rural areas and near the airport, where growth is unplanned and not supported by current infrastructure.

The Sonoma County Airport has lengthened runways and is expanding the terminal to welcome more and more visitors. The increase in greenhouse gas emissions caused by more air travel to the county is not accounted for in Sonoma County’s climate action plan, which led to it being successfully challenged in court. The County’s actions in encouraging air travel and tourism consumption are increasing noise, traffic and emissions. Is this what we want?

Tourism can be a fragile economic sector, relying on low-wage workers, and it is subject to boom and bust cycles. As tourism becomes a larger percentage of the economy, this cycle can be painful during downturns. One cautionary tale is that of Venice, Italy. This famous city is overwhelmed by a tourism industry, which has displaced most of its traditional economy and residents. Cruise ships pollute the water and cram streets with visitors, while the tourism industry does nothing to address the city’s existential threat from sea level rise.

Closer to home, we can look to our neighboring Napa County, which has been battling at the ballot box and in the courts over winery expansion and land conservation. It’s time to rein in the Sonoma County tourism industry to stop even further erosion of this beautiful piece of California.

County leaders can install limits on vacation rentals and second homes, work to improve and encourage public transit to curb event traffic and rethink expansion of the airport. More of the Transient Occupancy Tax could go to local emergency jurisdictions. Minimum wage throughout Sonoma County should be $15 an hour. Infrastructure upgrades, like a network of protected bike paths, would benefit locals and tourists.

We could better support the eco-tourism sector, which has a lighter impact and needs a pristine and rural landscape to succeed.  We live in a beautiful place. We can restore balance between a healthy tourism economy and adhering to safeguards to protect Sonoma County for future generations to live in and enjoy. Let’s choose to help sustain it.