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Can California Tourism Survive Climate Change?

This summer, Lori Droste, the vice-mayor of the city of Berkeley, and her family faced a series of doomed trips. In July, they booked a cabin near the McCloud River in Northern California, but had to cancel because of smoke from the Salt and Lava Fires. In early August, they made it to Serene Lakes, in the Sierra — but because of the Dixie Fire, were “basically confined to the Airbnb, because the smoke was so bad,” she said. They planned a do-over, during the Labor Day weekend. “But then Caldor was raging.” They canceled.

California is often presented in the media as an object of disaster, as Tom Hale underscored to me. Mr. Hale is the founder of Backroads, the Berkeley-based travel company, which has been operating biking and outdoors-oriented trips in the United States and 54 other countries for four decades. It deals with fallout from it all, from hurricanes in Baton Rouge to floods in Berlin. As we all know, climate change is not a state or country specific issue.

And in California, 2021 has been Backroads’ best year yet; 2022 is booked nicely, too.

“I don’t see natural disasters having a permanent impact on demand,” Mr. Hale said. “Unless the whole state is on fire — which is not the case. As much as newspapers make it out to be.”

Still, he acknowledges there have been some differences.

“Wine country used to be our bread and butter,” said Mr. Hale, “but we’ve seen a decline in bookings in the last five years.”

A Utah State University study, published in September, found that changing climate conditions are likely to affect the recreational use of public lands across seasons and regions of the United States. California’s public lands are likely to see a decline in visitation primarily in the summer and fall. What people do there will change, too.

These results hints at what’s bound to happen beyond the parks — to small towns and big hotels; mom-and-pop restaurants; “taco trails” and hiking trails. “When you put it all together, tourism patterns will be altered pretty significantly,” said Emily Wilkins, the study’s lead author.

A shift is already quietly, anecdotally, underway. In Northern California, low snow, early melts and high winds forced the Shasta Mountain Guides tour company to cancel its most popular route up Mount Shasta in April. Yet Casey Glaubman, a guide, offered words of higher wisdom. “Part of mountaineering is being flexible; adapting and adjusting plans is what it’s all about,” he said. “Things are changing, but it doesn’t have to mean the end of everything.”

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