By Greg Norton & Caroline Beteta.

Nearly 80 percent of California is rural. That’s 131,000 square miles of forests, coastal areas, deserts, farmland and vineyards. More than 5 million Californians call these places home, and for domestic and international visitors they’re some of the most appealing and iconic tourist destinations in the world.

California’s natural wonders and landscapes — from Yosemite’s El Capitan to the rugged coastline in Big Sur – allow visitors to fulfill their dreams of hiking, rock climbing, wine tasting, camping and discovering charming towns and communities along the way. The global allure of these California experiences help to attract more than 200 million travelers to the Golden State each year, injecting more than $106 billion annually into our state’s economy.

This is significant when you consider that tourism fills a critical role in diversifying and stabilizing rural economies. Rural areas in California are typically more vulnerable to economic pressures, so the influx of tourism dollars often is a significant source of revenue to support local businesses and jobs.

Economic benefits of travel and tourism

Last year, in addition to the more than $106 billion visitors spent in the state, California’s travel and tourism industry employed nearly 1 million people and generated $6.6 billion in local and state tax revenue, according to a travel and tourism industry report prepared by Dean Runyan Associates.  If the industry’s tax contribution disappeared, the state and local governments would need approximately $890 in additional revenue per California household to maintain current spending levels.

The industry also generates tax revenue and jobs that benefit local economies. For example, in the Central Coast, the industry directly supported 72,300 jobs and created $164 million in local tax revenue. In the Central Valley, the industry employed 64,300 people and generated $91 million in local tax revenue. The Deserts region realized 60,400 jobs and $106 million in local taxes.

Here’s a breakout of the travel and tourism industry’s economic value in other major California regions and in each county.

Responding to support rural tourism, local economies

This year was particularly rough for rural counties given the Yosemite Rim Fire – the third-largest wildfire in modern California history – and the federal government shutdown, which shuttered Yosemite National Park. The “Yosemite is closed” message rippled around the world, prompting many to cancel their California vacations.

To support the Rim Fire recovery and attract visitors, Visit California responded quickly by implementing its crisis communication plan. It convened a Task Force comprised of industry stakeholders representing the affected areas, and the group met regularly throughout the entire crisis period. To date, Visit California has assisted local tourism agencies in communicating the “Yosemite Remains Open” message to a global audience via earned and paid media, social media and messaging on its domestic websites and 11 international websites. The message has also been delivered at international trade shows in Brazil, Japan and the United Kingdom, and among leading Chinese tourism agencies.

While visitors are finding their way back to the glory of Yosemite National Park, economic hardships continue after the initial impact to travel and tourism in Tuolumne and Mariposa counties. A recent letter by Governor Jerry Brown to request federal assistance states that:

In 2012, nearly 4 million people entered Yosemite National Park to explore the park’s natural resources, hiking trails and roadways. Because of the Rim Fire and subsequent government shutdown, the number of visitors has been greatly diminished for 2013, causing short- and long-term economic impacts to the Region…tourism-dependent businesses like motels, restaurants, and gas stations have all suffered, impacting local and state tax revenue. Tuolumne County estimated it will be out at least $350,000 in hotel and sales taxes and that $3.25 million was lost in tourist spending during the fire and Yosemite closure. Additionally, Mariposa County estimated lodging revenue losses at more than $3.5 million. The Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau estimates that local business will ultimately lose as much as $15 million in lost tourism and Mariposa County estimates more than $5 million in lost tourism dollars.

The one-two punch of the Rim Fire and federal government shutdown created an extreme situation; nevertheless, the impacts to Tuolumne and Mariposa Counties show how important the travel and tourism industry – and the businesses that depend on it – is to ensure economic stability. As local leaders and governments continue their important work to enhance and protect the quality of life in California’s small and rural counties, they must also not overlook their rural tourism industries that create regional jobs and economic prosperity.

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Greg Norton is the President & CEO of Rural County Representatives of California (RCRC). Caroline Beteta is the President & CEO of Visit California.