Welcome Excursion: Cruise Ship Passengers Bolster Santa Barbara Economy

Release Date: May 3,2016

Cruise ship visits to Santa Barbara have hit a sweet spot for the city and local businesses.

Between 25 and 30 cruises have arrived at Sea Landing annually for the last five years, bringing needed tourists during the slower spring and fall travel seasons and during the weekdays.

The cruise ship business has made Santa Barbara a viable West Coast port and the city may increase bookings in the next few years, but the current number is the right balance of financial benefit without overwhelming the community, said Santa Barbara Waterfront Department Administrative Analyst Dominique Samario.

An economic impact study done in the fall of 2013 surveyed 837 cruise ship passengers after a day in Santa Barbara and estimated that cruises generate around $2.4 million for businesses and $312,000 in taxes for the city annually.

Businesses hope to capture much more than that, though, Samario said. While 17.7 percent were international travelers and almost all were first-time visitors, more than 44 percent were California residents.

“Because a majority of these cruises take off from either Los Angeles or San Francisco, a lot of the passengers are actually from the Bay Area, Orange County or LA, which are perfect weekend drive markets for us,” Samario said, adding that those areas have strong employment and higher expendable income.

Bringing the ships to Santa Barbara was a collaborative effort between the city and local groups like the Chamber of Commerce, Visit Santa Barbara and the Downtown Organization. As they expanded the program for cruise ships, they avoided scheduling weekend or summer visits and vetted dates to ensure that they didn’t coincide with community activities, Kathy Janega-Dykes, CEO of Visit Santa Barbara, said in an email.

While it took a few years and extensive community outreach, Samario said, the partnerships have encouraged improvements to the harbor area, traffic flow and security.

Sea Landing now features a mosaic city seal, updated sidewalks, native vegetation and is undergoing upgrades for ADA accessibility. Fees from the ships pay for additional shuttles to ferry passengers and ship operators pay for additional police enforcement.

“We require a lot of them and I think the fact that they’re still asking to return, hopefully, speaks highly of the experience their passengers are getting when they come into Santa Barbara,” Samario said.

The ships also have to adhere to emissions standards, responsible whale watching guidelines and sign an agreement stating that they will not discharge waste within 12 nautical miles of Santa Barbara.

“We’re here to be a good steward to the community,” said Crystal Morgan, director of deployment planning for Princess Cruises, which operates a majority of the ships that contract with the city. “The community wants us to leave a very small footprint.”

Being headquartered in Santa Clarita helps Princess connect to the community and partner with businesses, said Chantelle Foran, manager of shore excursions. The close proximity has helped her meet personally with businesses to expand the program offered on the cruises.

“Over the last couple years, we’ve all worked really well together and improved the experience for our passengers as they come ashore,” Foran said. “For us, it’s just trying to look for different tour products. It’s rediscovering Santa Barbara for our guests and getting them out on those tours.”

From its start with one table, an umbrella and five volunteers, the ambassador program put on by the chamber to welcome cruise ship passengers has grown tenfold.

Businesses are seeing a difference, said Visitor Center Director Annmarie Rogers. Five years ago, only one hotel offered a brochure. Now, increases in the Asian market have her expecting to stock her packed tables with more materials in Chinese.

“It’s really expanded very smoothly,” Rogers said. “It’s really about getting them to return and stay.”

An average of around 25 percent of cruise visitors will take a tour, Foran said, including walking and biking tours in Santa Barbara and Montecito, wine tasting in Solvang, trolley tours and whale-watching.

“What we feel adds to the commercial appeal of the cruise is that Santa Barbara has a lot of desire for people to visit that area but there are also a lot of activities in and around Santa Barbara,” Morgan said.

Visit Santa Barbara plans to conduct another survey this fall to assess economic impact and create a visitor profile for the average cruise tourist.

“Ultimately, we want these passengers to return to Santa Barbara again,” Janega-Dykes said. “We know from years of research that visitors who stay here overnight have a much larger economic impact than one-day visitors, on the whole community and for the city’s tax coffers.”

• Reprinted from Pacific Coast Business Times -  Story by Marissa Nall (mnall@pacbiztimes.com).

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