The Highway 1 link between Cambria, Big Sur and the Monterey Peninsula reopened July 18, 2018, after having been blocked for 18 months by repairs to landslide-caused closures of parts of the scenic and iconic highway.
There were undoubtedly huge sighs of relief up and down the coast.
It had been a tough time for businesses to survive, and even an internationally acclaimed destination like Hearst Castle was affected.
So, how has the reopening affected tourism, castle visitation and North Coast businesses?
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Generally, so far, so good, according to statistics and opinions from castle officials, the Cambria Chamber of Commerce and others. But it’s not all cut and dried.
Comparing statistics in the five-and-a-half-month periods from mid-July through December in the past three years, Hearst Castle attendance was up 4 percent in 2018, after being down 17 percent in 2017.
Attendance from July 18 through December 31 in each of those years was:
▪ 340,553 in 2016;
▪ 283,688 in 2017;
▪ 293,954 in 2018.
There’ve been a few glitches since the highway reopened — for one thing, it hasn’t stayed that way.
A new Caltrans policy that began last November allows the agency to preemptively close the Mud Creek and Paul’s Slide areas of Highway 1 when a storm heavy enough to potentially trigger rockfalls or landslides is predicted.
Mud Creek is 8.9 miles north of the San Luis Obispo/Monterey county line; Paul’s Slide is 21.6 miles north.
Other factors also affected those July-to-December castle stats.
For instance, the sudden bankruptcy of the state historic monument’s bus-transportation provider in December also cut visitation, because the replacement vehicles provided by the emergency bus contract were smaller. That meant fewer available seats each day.
And some events, such as the month-long Scarecrow Festival, Labor Day’s Pinedorado and the Christmas Market, also affected castle visitation and the flow of business into Cambria and San Simeon.
Castle attendance in the full calendar years were:
▪ • 2016, 744,409;
▪ 2017, 628,858;
▪ 2018, 593,556.
Those numbers, Falat said, also were affected by the late 2016, early 2017 storms and subsequent road closure, bus-company changes and devastating Soberanes and Chimney wildfires in the summer of 2016. The Chimney Fire came so close to the castle, the monument actually was closed for nine days.
Business since the road reopened has been “generally successful in Cambria,” according to Mary Ann Carson, executive director of the Cambria Chamber. “It was a good year, especially compared to the year before.”
There have been some business ups and downs already in 2019, primarily due to the weather in what is traditionally a North Coast slow season.
Mostly higher-than-normal temperatures and clear skies in January were replaced by heavy rain, stiff winds, thunderstorms and colder-than-usual temperatures so far in February that can keep people indoors.
As for the rest of 2019?
“I’m looking forward to another good year,” Carson said. “Our promotions are doing well. We’re doing more online reaching out to people. The Cambria Tourism Board is doing a good job, really helping the lodging industry market the town, I believe.”
As for Highway 1 closures affect on Cambria, she said it isn’t always a negative.
Disappointed out-of-towners “come in to ask us if the highway’s open,” Carson said. They ask “what they can do instead? We suggest that they stay in town, drive to Ragged Point to get the essence of Big Sur, see the elephant seals, the lighthouse and the coast.”
Then, if they really want to see Big Sur itself, they can drive back down to Cambria and “go around, taking (highways) 46 and 101, then to Monterey and Carmel and down to Big Sur,” she said.