.Talking to Newsom About Tourism

By Tariro Mzezewa and Jill Cowan, The New York Times

With California reopened, the state’s large tourism industry is hoping for a major comeback. Chief among the cheerleaders, of course, has been Gov. Gavin Newsom.

Earlier this week, my colleague Tariro Mzezewa, who covers travel for The New York Times, spoke to the governor about finally welcoming back visitors. Here’s their conversation, lightly edited and condensed:

Q: There have been many starts and stops to travel, and moments when people thought California was going to open, but did not. Can you tell me why right now is the time to fully reopen?

A: We have among the lowest positivity rates, and among the highest vaccination rates, in America. We feel like we’re well positioned and very enthusiastic.

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Q: There is a lot of focus on travel in your reopening plan. Why does travel matter so much to California?

A: This was a $145-billion-a-year industry. No other state comes close, including Florida. So there’s no state that has more to gain, in terms of fully reopening. The vast majority, overwhelming majority of the state has been operating, but with some limitations. This just removes the final limitations, in terms of physical distancing and capacity.

The tourism industry is part of the spirit and pride of the state. What makes California such a special place is the incredible diversification of options and opportunities for experiences, for magical moments.

Q: Why is California’s recovery important to the rest of the country?

A: Thirty-eight percent of America’s jobs came out of this state last month. America’s recovery has been bolstered by California’s recovery. You see the disproportionate number in the tourism and hospitality sector represented in those statistics.

There is no American recovery without California’s recovery. The good news is the state’s economic recovery is well underway. That should create optimism not just in California, but throughout the United States.

Q: What kind of investment are you putting into the travel industry right now? And what are you doing for travel workers in California?

A: This state is not turning its back on unemployment insurance, as many of the red states have. The state has provided a sick leave, and has extended workers’ comp benefits to displaced workers. We’ve really prided ourselves on leading the nation on worker protections.

We have just put in close to $100 million on an advertising program. The state put in $95 million to highlight in-state vacations and opportunities. We recognize international tourism is going to recover more slowly, but domestic tourism is roaring back, and so we really want a more aggressive capture on tourism, and not cede it all to Florida.

Q: Homelessness in California is at a tipping point. Are you really ready for tourists to come back while your own people are still struggling?

A: Yes. The answer is unequivocal. We announced our unprecedented $12 billion, tenfold increase in our historic investments to address homelessness this year, tackling street homelessness encampments, a billion and a half dollars to clean this state up.

No one is naïve about those preexisting conditions pre-pandemic. But we’re going to be using the historic budget surplus to invest as aggressively as any state has in its history, and to go after these issues and in a very sustainable way.

Q: What do you say to residents in parts of the state who say to you, “We’re just not ready to have tourists back?”

A: It’s hard, right, after a year of being in a certain mindset with all that anxiety and fear. But we’re turning the page.

Because of our health-care-first focus, our economy has done better, and it’s poised to do even better still. On forecasts that show states that are poised to outperform the rest of the nation in economic recovery, California tops those lists — primarily because of the tourism industry and hospitality industry coming back.

This is very personal for me, because I got into politics by way of this industry. I started right out of college, and I’ve started nine restaurants, four hotels, four wineries. I say it’s a way of expressing a deep respect, also empathy, for how this industry has had a sledgehammer put to it over the last year and a half.

Q: Between all of the vaccine incentives and giveaways, what do you say to people who say that this is a political move, or that you’re trying to take attention away from the recall effort against you?

A: There’s nothing we’re promoting that we wouldn’t promote in the abstract. There’s nothing we’re promoting that other states aren’t similarly promoting, so I’ll just leave it at that.

The incentives are actually working. We announced a 13.3% increase week over a week, so demonstrably it’s working, and it’s also something the Biden administration themselves have been promoting, and moreover, incentivizing states to participate and construct these programs, on the basis of federal reimbursements. We would be fools not to take advantage.

Q: There’s so much conversation about digital proof of vaccination. Can Californians expect something from you on that front any time soon?

A: We’ll be announcing the ability to take the paper verification and digitize it. It’s not a passport. It’s not a requirement. It’s an option for people, in lieu of their paper vaccination cards, to have a digitized copy.

Q: Disney is reopening to out-of-state visitors. What does that mean for California?

A: It’s emblematic. It’s a proxy for the rest of the state. Disneyland is of such iconic status that it’s a confidence boost, perhaps more than anything else. It has a very substantial regional economic impact, which is important.

I was talking to a good friend of mine who runs a resort, and he says they are already exceeding 2019 rates and occupancy and numbers in terms of profitability. You’re already seeing sectors of the economy outperforming 2019’s record-breaking year. That’s not evenly felt, and I’m mindful of that. In the aggregate, it’s going to take a few years for the industry to get back to 2019 numbers. But you’re seeing revenge tourism already take shape in California.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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