Tourism: Opportunities and Challenges

Visitors at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Felton. Photo by Maria Salomonsen.

The recreational attractions and environmental wonders of Santa Cruz County draw visitors from all over the world. Tourism in the county is a $1 billion industry with over 3 million visitors annually according to Visit Santa Cruz County and Visit California, nonprofit organizations that promote and develop tourism in the region. A large part of that economic impact reaches the Santa Cruz Mountains in the form of lodging, shopping, dining, events, entertainment and outdoor activities.

“The Santa Cruz Mountains’ top draw for domestic and international travelers are the State Parks. Promotion of the redwoods in particular play a pivotal role in our messaging and are one of the top draws when we promote to the international market along with beaches, Surf Culture and Hwy 1,” said Maggie Ivy, CEO of Visit Santa Cruz County (VSCC).

VSCC’s 2016 Visitor Profile Study documented that 29% of tourists visit a state park and redwoods; 70% are Californians, 17% from elsewhere in the US and 13% are international travelers. On average 60% of visitors are repeat while 40% have visited for the first time.

“The Santa Cruz Mountains is such a great getaway for visitors. Visit Santa Cruz County is excited about the recently reopened Brookdale Lodge and the new Redwood Run Disc Golf Course at Boulder Creek Golf and Country Club. Historically, the largest draws are certainly the State Parks and Roaring Camp Railroads. Visitors from all over the world come to see our amazing Redwood forests and enjoy Henry Cowell and Big Basin State Parks. When Visit Santa Cruz County hosts visiting media and international travel buyers, we feature a trip to the redwoods and they always steal the show.” said Ivy.

The financial influx from tourism benefits more than local businesses, it also provides jobs and supports infrastructure. And the industry is growing every year prodded by economic development organizations at city, county and state levels. "Tourism continues to play an indispensable role in the California economy," said Visit California President & CEO Caroline Beteta. "In local communities, the tourism industry lifts up businesses and supports job opportunities vital to regional success."

Scotts Valley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Danny Reber said, "In our city the tourism impact is the receipt of the Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT) our local hotel room tax. What's awesome about the TOT is that we do rely on it. Without that extra revenue we wouldn't be able to fund our police, parks and all of our city services. That's money coming from outside into the city." In addition to the recent arrival of the Four Points Sheraton, Reber referenced the Marriott Extended Stay in the pipeline. "Regarding our location, Scotts Valley is great for people wanting to visit Santa Cruz but looking for a family-friendly safe place to stay," he said.

Along with the benefits come challenges. For many locals, the summertime crowds are not always good news. The downsides are numerous – traffic, crowds, trash. Felton’s Garden of Eden is an example of what, at one time, was a local’s secret. With its sandy beach, rocky outcroppings and lure of the cool San Lorenzo River on a hot day, the site has become immensely popular with out-of-towners. Parking is limited so the overflow parks on the dirt shoulder outside of the parking lot and visitors spill out onto one of the narrower sections of Highway 9. The trash left behind is documented frequently on Facebook.

Social media has exacerbated the problem, most recently with a San Francisco singles club advertising a “Not-so-Secret Swimming Hole & Hike” at the Garden of Eden. As of this writing, 290 Facebook users have been “invited” by the host, 124 have claimed they are “going” and 3,902 have indicated “interested”. An email from the club’s member relations staff, who did not provide a name, promises that this event “maxes out at 18.”

Comments on the Facebook event page include:

I live here and I highly encourage you to rethink this. There is very little parking and what is available is all on the side of highway 9 which is windy and narrow. People are hit by traffic regularly in this area and as I'm writing this post there is a helicopter medevac happening to remove the ... person who has injured themselves diving into the shallow pools. This is a regular occurrence.

Please do not attend this event. You are Not NOT NOT welcome. The site cannot handle this many people. Visitors leave garbage all over the place. There is no place to park. There are frequent injuries and it is a very hard place for medical emergency people to reach. Please pick some other place for this.

Businesses which rely on tourism welcome the crowds saying that the traffic is seasonal and makes up for the slower winter months. Claire Campbell, owner of the Outback Trading clothing and gift store in Felton said, “The hope is that they will shop in our stores, visit our restaurants, and appreciate our beautiful valley. So, yes from that perspective tourists are most welcome.” But Campbell points out that, for a Garden of Eden visit, Google Maps routes San Francisco visitors from Highway 17 south to Santa Cruz, then north on Highway 9, bypassing Scotts Valley and San Lorenzo Valley shopping and dining opportunities.

San Lorenzo Valley Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Bryan Chambers said, “The valley has always been a draw for tourists since the conservation of Big Basin Redwoods State Park in the early 1900s. We’re proud of our eco-tourism roots and understand that, while there are certainly tradeoffs, tourists bring a lot to our economy.

Economic development committees from both San Lorenzo Valley and Scotts Valley Chambers have been working together recently to address tourism and marketing in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

What’s your take on tourism in the valleys? Let us know at

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