We have a new tourism campaign for the San Mateo County coast. It goes like this:
Whatever you do, don’t come to the coast! We have fires and deadly virus! The traffic is crazy! Evacuees are flooding in from the south! We’ve closed the beaches but will nonetheless charge you to park! Restaurants and bars are closed! Do. Not. Come!
It’s guaranteed to bring in waves of tourists. How do we know? We were here last weekend.
Americans don’t like to be told what to do. That fact is only somewhat less sacrosanct than its unhappy corollary: Americans are often oblivious. Put those two facts together and you have waves of visitors spilling over hills literally on fire toward a perceived oasis that is really in the midst of a killer pandemic. Welcome to the Coastside, everyone.
For decades, Half Moon Bay promoters have fought and clawed to win favor among visitors. The Half Moon Bay Coastside Chamber of Commerce and Visitors’ Bureau worried over signs pointing toward downtown and planted medians on the highways and promoted coupon deals in hopes of creating a more vibrant and profitable tourist center. Perhaps they should have tried to keep people away instead. It turns out to work like a charm.
Last week, as a historic fire licked at the southern edges of San Mateo County, the mayor, Chamber officials, restaurant owners and seemingly everyone else with a Coastside address pleaded with people to stay over the hill. The feeling was that two deadly crises was enough for one weekend. Half Moon Bay High School was filled with evacuees as were area hotels and RV lots. Public safety officials urged everyone to stay off the roads so that firefighters could get to the front lines. Alas, we were talking to ourselves. It’s as if everyone over there suddenly lost their social media accounts, turned off their televisions and threw their newspapers in the recycling bin. No one was listening.
Perhaps most disturbing, by and large these weren’t bumpkins from some backward red state. No, our problem has been our Bay Area neighbors — the same people who claim an affinity for the coast and a brotherhood with people a short drive from their own homes. Our problem is people who should know better than to pack up their kids and head to within 20 miles of a historic fire when asked not to do so.
On the coast, there is growing resentment against our day-tripping neighbors to the north and east. We are increasingly aware that they don’t do much for the economy. They don’t pay the transient occupancy tax at area hotels, they eat fewer meals at local restaurants, they seek fewer experiences like surf lessons and trail rides. All Coastsiders get from day-trippers is clogged roads and perhaps a case of COVID-19.
Fixing the problem may be impossible. The city of Half Moon Bay has tried to slow the tide of visitors, but frankly some mixed messaging hasn’t helped. The city closed Poplar Beach but allowed visitors to pay to park there. It urged folks to stay away but opened a new outdoor eating area on Kelly Avenue at the very same time. (To be fair, the theory was the outdoor area could prove useful for evacuees with nowhere else to eat.) Meanwhile, the California Coastal Act assures beach access for all, virtually all the time. A tangle of local, state and federal agencies are rarely on the same page when it comes to regulating coastal assets.
And it’s simply difficult to stop the flood of tourists after decades of extoling the virtues of local attractions. Half Moon Bay is known across the region as a great place to escape the heat. And however troubled the city is now, it beats the hellscape of places like Livermore that were 20 degrees hotter with far worse air quality.
So, come on in, everyone. The water is increasingly warm.
— Clay Lambert