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A travel writer contemplates a less mobile future

Henry Wismayer, THE WASHINGTON POST

…the coronavirus shutdowns have reinforced an uncomfortable truth: The way we engage with the wider world has needed to change for a long time.

A future without travel? Until recently, I admit, it’s not a concept I’ve been able to imagine, much less embrace. Ever since I turned 18, I have shaped my life, and scratched a writer’s living, around the pursuit of foreign places. In that time, the weeks that I spend overseas have often seemed like a prerequisite of contentment: a source of not only stimulation, but also self-actualization.

That is how vital travel can feel to those of us who let it. In an era in which spirituality has in many ways been supplanted by a quest for temporal experience, to venture abroad is to accumulate evidence that we are making the best of our short time on Earth. Bask in the afterglow of the last adventure. Count down to the next.

At least that’s how it used to be.

For the last few months, the borders have closed, and the skies have emptied. The cruise ships have all docked, the hotels have shuttered. Suddenly, those of us who love to travel have found ourselves living in a strange limbo, lavished with a surfeit of time, yet deprived of the liberty to take full advantage of it.

In the months since the coronavirus outbreak pushed much of the global population into quarantine, many of us have sought distraction, even enchantment, in photographs of the newly empty human world. Among these, tourist attractions can seem among the most poignant and uncanny, for it is rare that we get to see these places without the throngs of visitors that usually populate them. It is interesting to consider what our response to these images suggests about travel today.

Of course, there is longing. The sight of famous destinations, absent crowds and traffic, evoke a Sartre-like ideal — travel, without the hell of other people — that only accentuates their enticement. But alongside this desire, for me at least, there is also melancholy, for it is impossible to witness the serenity of the paused planet without feeling a tinge of regret for what travel has become. In the same way that some of us have found a misanthropic thrill in apocryphal tales of dolphins swimming up a Venice canal, or satellite images of pollution dissipating over China, the coronavirus shutdowns have reinforced an uncomfortable truth: The way we engage with the wider world has needed to change for a long time.

Recently, I marked 10 years of travel writing feeling uneasy about the state of modern tourism. In part, my idea of foreign places had become infected by the unavoidable backdrop of an angrier, destabilizing world. And while millions still jumped on planes for leisure, I couldn’t shake the creeping sense that so much of what we call travel is extractive, the commodification of someone else’s sunshine, culture and photogenic views. In my most cynical moments, I had started to see travel as something monstrous, a vector of humanity’s infestation that has evolved out of all proportion with what the planet can sustain.

Last summer, I looked on, aghast and complicit, as the world’s most celebrated sights and cities were inundated like never before. Regions once off-limits to all but the most intrepid now teemed with rubberneckers from every corner of the world. Those tourists brought with them a litany of collateral issues, from environmental damage and consumer price inflation to cultural insensitivity and urban displacement. Lines snaked beneath the summit of Mount Everest. Behemoth cruise ships jostled for space at the Venice quayside.
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After another record-breaking year, Sonoma County airport adding more flights on established routes

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Commercial carriers operating out of Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport will add four direct fights on existing routes early this year, building on the growth in local air travel after another record-breaking year for passenger numbers in and out of Santa Rosa.

American Airlines will add a second daily flight next month to Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. The world’s largest airline launched service from Santa Rosa to its Phoenix hub in February 2017, and will increase service Feb. 13 with an evening flight, supplementing its existing early afternoon departure.

American Airlines also is set to resume its flights in April to Dallas/Fort Worth and Los Angeles International airports. The routes debuted last summer as seasonal offerings but passenger counts were high enough on each flight that the airline is planning to offer them year-round this year, according to airport officials.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10590414-181/after-another-record-breaking-year-sonoma

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Sonoma County reviewing pitches for two large hotel projects near Santa Rosa airport

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Developers are proposing to build a pair of large hotels near Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport, more than tripling the number of hotel rooms to serve travelers at the growing transportation hub.

The two projects, each more than 100 rooms, could help the Santa Rosa airport draw more regional travelers who currently head to Bay Area hubs in San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose and even east to Sacramento to catch their flights, according to local airport and economic development officials.

The developments, which would open next year, are working their way through the county’s permit review process. The first, a six-story, 166-room luxury Hyatt Place, would offer conference rooms, a roof deck and restaurant about 300 yards away from the airport. The second, a four-story, 101-room Tru by Hilton, would be located near the Highway 101 offramp.

They would join the existing hotel near the airport, a 90-room Hilton Garden Inn next to the highway that also provides meeting spaces for guests.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10571140-181/sonoma-county-reviewing-pitches-for

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Sonoma County airport feels crush of holiday travel during another record-breaking year

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The forecast 10% rise in passengers over last year burnishes the airport’s standing as one of the fastest growing in the nation, based on rate of passenger increase over the past four years, according to airport officials. It also extends a now nine-year streak of gains, stretching back to the sluggish years following the nation’s economic recession.

The holiday rush this week at Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport was another symptom of the regional hub’s clear growing pains, reflecting its rising popularity among air travelers but also laying bare the need for a planned terminal expansion.

Through November, the airport had already set another record this year for passenger traffic, surpassing the 440,000 people who flew in and out last year. Once December’s numbers are added, airport leaders expect nearly 500,000 passengers will have passed through the facility in 2019.

But with the swelling passenger totals, waits in security and check-in lines have increased inside the 52-year-old building, which operates with one small baggage claim and a single queue for passenger screening.

Read more at: https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10508867-181/sonoma-county-airport-feels-crush

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Studies criticize wineries’ effect on rural Sonoma County

Tyler Silvy, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Click here for links to traffic studies

Sonoma County wineries should bear the bulk of the responsibility for improving relations with rural neighbors, according to a pair of recently released county studies calling for fewer events, more coordination and a higher standard of review for new or expanding wineries.

The studies, which waded into the county’s most persistent land-use fight, encompass three of the most popular wine growing and tasting areas: Dry Creek Valley and Westside Road, as well as Sonoma Valley. In the reports, GHD, a private company with offices in Santa Rosa and Walnut Creek, looked at traffic counts, crashes and other symptoms of a long-running battle over the character of rural Sonoma County and expansion of its signature industry.

The reports include some of the strongest criticism of the industry to emerge from the county’s prolonged look at wineries’ rural footprint, including the profusion of events and promotional activities now held by many winemakers. About 450 wineries exist in unincorporated Sonoma County.

Many in the wine industry are not convinced of the need for more strict regulations.

DaVero Farms and Winery owner Ridgely Evers said it’s about balance. The No. 1 problem is a lack of enforcement for current rules, he said. And bad actors will ignore more restrictive rules just like they do now, he added.

“This is a classic issue that you run into any time you intermingle residents and commerce,” said Evers, a 35-year county resident whose winery sits at Dry Creek Road and Westside Road, near the epicenter of the fight. “If you look at it from that perspective, obviously the right thing is some kind of balance.”

But neighbors say the study recommendations don’t go far enough to reduce cumulative impacts, and say many of the suggestions already are standard practice for nearly the past decade.

Judith Olney, co- chairwoman of Preserve Rural Sonoma County and chairwoman of the Westside Community Association, two organizations at odds with continued winery growth in rural areas, said recommendations like expanded shuttle service could actually increase traffic.

And she worries about undue influence from industry leaders, who want to authorize more winery events — and with them, more traffic, Olney said.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10273278-181/sonoma-county-studies-take-issue

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Sonoma County wine industry seeks to sway county planners on land-use regulations

Tyler Silvy, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Leaders of Sonoma County’s wine industry on Monday fired a new volley in the protracted, cyclical battle over the expansion of their industry, hosting political appointees and county staff for a “mobile educational workshop” in an effort to inject industry-friendly language into long-delayed land-use policy.

Sonoma County Vintners, an industry trade association, organized the unique public meeting of the county’s Planning Commission, with stops including a recently completed 24-person, dormitory-style farmworker residence near Cloverdale, MacRostie Winery Estate west of Healdsburg and Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens north of Santa Rosa.

In Cloverdale, it was housing; at Kendall-Jackson, code enforcement. But the backdrop for the meeting was Permit Sonoma’s move to update an ordinance related to agricultural promotional activities — wine tastings and other events that fuel traffic and other impacts in rural areas.

Milan Nevajda, deputy director for Permit Sonoma, the county’s planning department, said the goal is to create an ordinance that balances the tension between what the industry needs and ensuring it can be a good neighbor.

The tension has existed for two decades, as hundreds of new wineries have come on line since the turn of the century, and the business model has shifted to seek more direct-to-consumer sales that have brought forth wine clubs, more tasting rooms and weddings and special, members-only dinners.

Opponents of that expansion have complained about the noise and the traffic, which they say detracts from the bucolic feel of the countryside.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10203620-181/sonoma-county-wine-industry-seeks

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Rangers’ suit claims Broadway Under the Stars is ‘inappropriate’ use of Jack London park

Mary Callahan, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

An association of active and retired state park rangers has sued over the continued use of Jack London State Historic Park for open-air Broadway-styled musical productions that since 2012 have drawn thousands of enthusiastic patrons to the protected ruins of the late novelist’s old winery on summer nights.

The unprecedented lawsuit by the more than half-century-old California State Park Rangers Association claims the State Parks department improperly approved a five-year extension for the Transcendence Theatre Co., contending its large-scale productions conflict with the park’s general plan and the historic site’s protected status.

“The issue, in its simplest form, is that California State Parks is attempting to legitimize the creation of a large, ongoing, multi-million dollar operation and commercial-style theatrical facility right in the heart of Jack London State Historic Park, a national and state historic landmark, and within the ruins at the Beauty Ranch area of the park,” Mike Lynch, president of the rangers association, CSPRA, said in a written statement.

The lawsuit says State Parks officials should have subjected the operation to more thorough study and public scrutiny under the California Environmental Quality Act, the state’s bedrock land-use law.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/10104973-181/lawsuit-targets-transcendence-theatre-operations

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Vision for housing and hotel development in northern Healdsburg challenged in court

Kevin Fixler, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Healdsburg has begun its review of a developer’s proposal to build what would be the city’s largest housing project, a plan on the north end of town that has restoked the fiery debate in this Wine Country destination over the pace of residential growth and hotel development.

Already, the proposal by Southern California-based Comstock Homes has drawn a legal challenge against the city, with opponents asserting the expansive development would run afoul of state environmental regulations.

The project, on a vacant former lumber yard bounded by Healdsburg Avenue and Highway 101 north of Simi Winery, currently calls for more than 350 units of housing and a 120-room hotel.

The housing would be split between 132 income-restricted rental units for the local workforce and a 220-unit senior living community. Plans also call for 20,000 square feet of retail space.

“We have a vision to provide something sorely needed in the community,” said Debra Geiler, Comstock’s director of entitlements. “The mix of housing units and the hotel and all of it is sort of the economic balance. If we succeed, what we will be able to provide to Healdsburg is a paradigm shift in community design and creating neighborhoods.”

But Sebastopol-based California River Watch has filed suit contending that Healdsburg failed to lawfully account for the greenhouse gas emissions the luxury hotel would generate. The lawsuit is a key piece of the group’s goal to force local governments to more closely account for the climate impacts of commercial growth and the region’s tourism economy.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/9850091-181/vision-for-housing-and-hotel

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Developers may scrap plans for Kenwood resort

Lorna Sheridan, SONOMA INDEX-TRIBUNE

Chinese real estate developer Tohigh Investments appears to be walking away from its plan for a high-end resort at the base of Hood Mountain in Kenwood.

Sources close to what was supposed to be the Sonoma Country Inn development said that the 186-acre property is now on the market, although the company’s official real estate and lobbying representatives reached on Monday were unable to confirm its status.

Initial development plans for the former Graywood Ranch property were first approved in 2004, when the parcel was dubbed La Campagna. But the development proposal languished for a decade, due in part, to the economic downturn in 2009.

Tohigh purchased the Kenwood property in 2014 for $41 million from Bob Piccinini, chairman and CEO of Modesto-based Save Mart Supermarkets. Tohigh is a subsidiary of Chinese conglomerate Oceanwide Holdings.

Despite some fierce neighborhood opposition, the Sonoma County Planning Commission voted unanimously in 2017 that the Tohigh project had a vested right to go forward.

Read more at: https://www.sonomanews.com/business/9602897-181/chinese-may-scrap-plans-for?ref=moststory

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Sonoma County hotel sector poised for expansion

Bill Swindell, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sonoma County’s hoteliers are playing catch-up to make room for the growing number of visitors.

The lodging industry is undergoing unprecedented expansion with about a dozen properties slated to open in the next few years.

The hotel building boom comes after a dearth of new lodging in the earlier part of the decade. Developers and hoteliers now appear to be making up for inactivity in the aftermath of the Great Recession, as the county remains a prime destination for wine tourism and an array of other activities and places to visit.

“This is a very strong county. … The occupancy level is very, very high,” said Jan Freitag, senior vice president for STR, a Tennessee research firm and longtime tracker of the global hotel industry. “Developers see a hot market and say, ‘Let’s get into it.’”

Developers are betting Sonoma County can keep delivering more tourists. It’s averaging about 7.5 million visitors a year. Those visitors are staying in more than 7,000 hotel rooms and 3,700 campground and recreational vehicle spaces, according to Sonoma County Tourism figures.

Read more at https://www.pressdemocrat.com/business/9247313-181/sonoma-county-lodging-sector-bustling