Visalia: A Traveler’s Oasis
While students are out of school and families are enjoying a more leisurely pace, one area of activity in Visalia is experiencing a dramatic increase—tourism.
From Memorial Day until Labor Day, Visalia and its surrounding towns welcome an influx of visitors from around the world. Sit down to a meal at one of your favorite restaurants and you’ll likely notice a guest sitting next to you who is here to witness the area’s famed agriculture, national parks, local culture, or a sports event.
Drive east on Highway 198 and it’s not uncommon to see visitors parked on the side of the road, marveling at mature orange trees while posing for photos (and even sampling citrus). Stop at a produce stand or a farmers market, and you’ll hear a multitude of languages and accents.
Just like locals, tourists also capitalize on Visalia’s ideal location: smack dab in the middle of the state between Los Angeles and San Francisco, in close proximity to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. Thousands of guests choose to make Visalia their base camp for their national parks adventures, hopping on the Sequoia Shuttle for a stress-free journey east. Still others shop, dine, and stay in Visalia to experience life in what Mayor Warren Gubler describes as “Middle America.”
“When I go to other countries, I like to see the flashy tourist sites, but I also like to see how normal people live,” he explained. “For example, our historic downtown feels much like what it did in the era of the Old West. We’re the oldest city between Stockton and Los Angeles. You can also get a feel for farming and what it is that we do here. We are the bread basket of the nation. That’s what Visalia has to offer—a quality of life that is Americana.”
The value of tourism to local government budgets cannot be understated, as confirmed by recently released statistics compiled by Dean Runyan Associates, a national firm that generates market and economic reports.
In 2016, Tulare County tourists generated more than $380 million in destination spending—a number that has climbed from $214 million in 2000. Tulare County charges a 9.8 percent nightly tax at hotels called a Transient Occupancy Tax (TOT). In 2016, it totaled more than $6 million.
More than 5,000 jobs are supported by visitors, the majority of which are in the hospitality industry. In 2016 alone, more than 1.8 million people visited Tulare County’s two national parks, Sequoia and Kings Canyon.
“We appreciate the tourist dollar,” said Mayor Gubler. “In addition to benefiting our merchants and hoteliers, we also generate revenue for the city. It’s a clean, non-polluting way to help business in town.”
Michelle Wiebe, owner of Pacific Treasures and Gourmet on Main Street, said her store has seen increased business due to tourists staying in Visalia, the majority of whom are on their way to visit the world-famous Giant Sequoias.
“Tourists love to shop, period,” said Michelle. “It’s nice to have them visit and they are delighted by our downtown. Visalia has a good sense of community, and it is very apparent to them.”
Michelle said her staff will converse with the shoppers, who often ask for dining recommendations. Quizzing their likes and dislikes, Michelle said they offer restaurant referrals, and quite often, the same shoppers come back again the next day to say thank you.
“Anybody would agree that it is a benefit to have tourists in town. We really appreciate them,” said Michelle.
Convincing visitors to take one of the highway exits for Visalia or a neighboring town is the work of Suzanne Bianco, director of the Visalia Convention and Visitor’s Bureau and a member of the Sequoia Tourism Council.
“Visalia is marketed as the gateway to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, as a foodie paradise, and as the number one ag-producing county in the country,” said Suzanne. “We know that many tourists are headed to the parks and we strive to pull them off the highway and into our town.”
There are a multitude of reasons to stop in Visalia, according to Suzanne. Top among them is a chance to enjoy downtown Visalia, with its walkable streets, boutiques, cafés, craft beer venues, art galleries, a weekly farmers market, and an irresistible trolley. Tourists enjoy taking in “America’s Game” at the Rawhide Stadium, where the Visalia Rawhide, a Single A professional baseball team, delights fans with an up-close-and-personal experience. Families with little ones can enjoy interactive exhibits at ImagineU Children’s Museum in downtown, where they’ll play and learn about life in the Central Valley.
As part of the Sequoia Tourism Council, Suzanne works in concert with representatives from around the county who have a stake in tourism, such as chambers of commerce. Pooling their resources, the partnership represents the area at three travel and adventure consumer shows a year in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego. Thousands of people attend these shows looking for their next vacation destination, Suzanne said.
In addition to capitalizing on its ideal location, playing host to events is another way to attract visitors. Mayor Gubler said signature events, such as the Visalia Senior Games, held each spring, also bring tourists to the city.
“We had people from 90 different communities in California come to Visalia,” he said. “Now that’s tourism!”
Competitors also traveled from as far as Texas and Washington to participate in the games, which featured track and field events, swimming, pickle ball, and archery competitions for those age 50 and older.
The mayor said events such as the Senior Games, and especially February’s World Ag Expo, bring guests to town for a specific reason. The Visalia Convention Center also plays hosts to a number of national and regional events, ushering in visitors from around the country. He would like to see the area host more events like these to further increase tourism’s economic impacts.
In the meantime, as locals go about their daily summer routines, Mayor Warren Gubler encourages folks to keep an eye out for visitors, and take the opportunity to be a diplomat for the area. In fact, pick up some of the many brochures offered at the Visalia Convention and Visitor’s Bureau office downtown and have them handy.
“Don’t be afraid to strike up a conversation,” he said. “Many of our visitors speak three or four languages. Find out about their culture and their lifestyle, and even point them in the right direction to help them enjoy their time here.” n