Santa Barbara tourists and residents head to Stearns Wharf and the beach during a recent heat wave. (Giana Magnoli / Noozhawk photo)

Local businesses continue to fight their way back to pre-disaster sales numbers, and industry insiders expect economic recovery could stay elusive until 2019.

Businesses all over Santa Barbara County’s South Coast closed their doors for days, if not weeks, and saw lower-than-usual holiday sales during December’s lengthy Thomas Fire, which sent thick, choking smoke throughout the county. In a one-two gut punch soon after, the tourism industry took a huge hit during the 12-day closure of Highway 101, following the deadly Jan. 9 flash flooding and debris flows in Montecito.

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Business organizations and tourism marketing groups have been sounding the call for people to eat, shop and stay in Santa Barbara to support local economic recovery, and the efforts will likely have to continue for months to come.

Visit California, which markets California in partnership with the state’s tourism industry, estimated that the Highway 101 shutdown resulted in a loss of about $1 million in tourism spending every day, said Kathy Janega-Dykes, executive director of Visit Santa Barbara.

Now, in the high season, some hotels are reporting they are “behind pace for summer bookings,” she told Noozhawk.

“A big part of that is due to the fact that we missed a critical booking period in February and March when domestic and international visitors plan their summer holidays,” she added.

Footage of the Thomas Fire and the Montecito disaster was shown all over the world, and local celebrity residents were sharing their experiences on social media, Janega-Dykes noted.

“So we had and still have a huge perception issue to overcome, given people didn’t realize that the city of Santa Barbara and most of the Santa Barbara South Coast was unscathed and our tourism infrastructure was 99 percent intact,” she said.

Janega-Dykes said her organization used a “Santa Barbara Shines recovery marketing campaign” from January through April, to generate bookings from Southern California (where more than 61 percent of visitors live) and show that the area was safe and open for business.

“We’re in the third and final phase of our recovery plan, which expands our focus beyond immediate business to rebuilding demand for long-haul visitors and increasing incremental overnight stays,” she said.

Visit Santa Barbara knows how to respond for crisis management, given the area’s frequent wildfires, Janega-Dykes said, but the Thomas Fire and Montecito debris flows were unprecedented catastrophes.

“In the wake of the disasters, our challenge was how to strike the delicate balance of demonstrating support for an unprecedented tragedy while communicating that area hotels, restaurants and attractions were open for business,” she said.

Now, Janega-Dykes said, the marketing challenge is the uncertainty, given the ongoing risk of debris flows during future rainstorms.

“Our biggest challenge now is how we market our destination to bring business back when we don’t know when the crisis will actually end,” she said.

It will take time for tourism numbers to get back to normal, said Ken Oplinger, executive director of The Chamber of the Santa Barbara Region.

“Most estimates are, even with all the marketing, which is helping, we will not see a full return of visitor traffic until probably January of next year,” he said.

“I think the problem is that a lot of folks have gone through their savings, they have not seen the local numbers come back to the point we’ve hoped,” he continued. “And the biggest issue is we haven’t seen the return of, especially, the drive traffic from Southern California.”

There’s an opportunity to get visitors who take day trips or weekend getaways up to Santa Barbara, he said, but the area lost the bulk of its convention traffic for the year.

Oplinger urged locals to keep shopping in town, and at locally owned shops when possible, to keep money and sales tax revenues in the community.

That’s the best way to aid economic recovery of the area, Janega-Dykes agreed.

“See a show, visit a museum, go shopping, dine out, wine taste, try a new adventure from one of the many tour companies, stay in a hotel or at least have a cocktail at a hotel bar,” she said.

Direct pleas to locals worked in December, when Downtown Santa Barbara urged residents to patronize local shops and restaurants.

Bad air quality from the Thomas Fire led to a mass exodus from the South Coast and low foot traffic forced many businesses to reduce hours or close their doors during the typically busy holiday shopping season.

“It was a bad Christmas for many businesses, but a lot of businesses were supported and saved,” said Kate Schwab, communications director for Downtown Santa Barbara, which promotes downtown’s business, cultural, community and environmental vitality.

After the worst smoky weekend, Dec. 16 and 17 when the flames were at their closest, she said Downtown Santa Barbara maintenance crews had cleaned up the ash and the organization was urging people to come eat and shop downtown — and people did come.

“I do think this town came and shopped and ate to be supportive,” Schwab said.

“Some wouldn’t have come usually, but it’s different when businesses are suffering because of a natural disaster.”

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Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Managing Editor

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at