Wish You Were Here

Where do we get tickets for the ferry?” asks the woman, one of three sisters visiting Sausalito from Arizona with their 80-year-old mother.

Bill Patterson, manning the visitor kiosk at the ferry terminal, grins, points to a sign above his head. In big, all-cap letters it says: BUY FERRY TICKETS ON THE BOAT.

“When’s the next ferry?” asks another.

Patterson grins again and points to two similar signs printed with ferry schedules.

“We just missed one,” laments a sister. “Well,” says another, “let’s go shopping.”

Patterson, not missing a beat, lobs in a well-practiced line. “Make sure you empty your wallets before you get on the ferry,” he says, “because the first thing they do is they frisk you and if they find money they throw you overboard.”

One of the sisters, late forties with a personality that matches her fiery jacket, counters, “I may have a little money left on me cause I’d like to try being frisked.”

Ta-da. Rim shot. Score one for the visitors.

’Tis the Season of the Tourists

They’re here. Short-shivering, camera-carrying, bridge-biking, Euro-spending tourists. The season is upon us and while some locals may fume about crowded ferries, fret about clogged country roads or smirk at bare-it-all beachwear more appropriate for Malibu than Muir (Woods or Beach), hundreds of Marin merchants and thousands of their employees welcome the summering horde and the millions of dollars they leave behind in restaurants, hotels and gift shops.

In case you haven’t noticed all the snow globes, sweatshirts and celebrity art for sale along Bridgeway, tourism is big business in Marin. Let’s do some numbers:

• Nearly 13 million people visit Marin each year, 60 percent of them day-trippers, 40 percent overnighters. (San Francisco averages almost triple that total, Napa-Sonoma about 1.5 times the number.)

• More than 80 percent of Marin visitors come from within 200 miles of here, about 10 percent are from out of state and, despite the Babylon of languages heard on Bridgeway, only about 5 percent are from outside the United States.

• Tourists are mostly fair-weather friends, with 80 to 90 percent visiting during the April to October season.

• Marin’s most popular destinations include Point Reyes National Seashore (2.5 million visitors), Muir Woods (1 million) and Sausalito (one in seven San Francisco tourists make the trans-bay trip.)

All that touring is good for local business. Out-of-towners spend about $650 million every year in our various towns, an amount that rises about 5.6 percent a year, according to Dean Runyan Associates, an Oregon travel data firm. To put that figure in perspective, the county of Marin’s budget this year is $430 million.

Those dollars put about 6,800 local people to work in the hospitality, food and retail industries and keep Marin’s 2,500 hotel rooms an average of about 80 percent full.

Javier Lopez, an engineer, and Johanna Kreither, a cognitive neuroscientist, are from Santiago, Chile. They take a weekend break from their work at UC Davis and end up in Sausalito by chance: after a train from Davis to Emeryville and a bus to San Francisco, they see the ferry to Sausalito and “decide to take it on the spur of the moment,” says Kreither.

At first glance, Sausalito reminds them of a city in Chile, Viña del Mar. Then, to their surprise, they discover that the plaza with the ornate fountain across from the ferry terminal is named Viña del Mar after that very city. (The two have been sister cities since 1971. Viña del Mar named a lagoon after Sausalito.)

Two-Wheeled Tourists

They’re everywhere in Marin these days — tourists on bikes. They come in all sizes and shapes (with many of the latter more suited for another meal at the Cheesecake Factory than pushing a heavy bike around Point Tiburon into a stiff headwind).

Armed with vacation-fueled bravado, thousands of tourists every week plunk down $28 or so in San Francisco and get a sturdy mountain bike and a colorful but nowhere-near-scale map that makes the quad-straining climb to Muir Woods look like it’s a 10-minute ride from the 2 A.M. Club.

Blazing Saddles, which pioneered the pay-to-pedal business in San Francisco, rents to about 100,000 people a year, says owner Jeff Sears, with 95 percent of them biking the bridge. About seven in 10 stop in Sausalito; the rest push on to Tiburon.

Sears says the idea took off after the renovation of Crissy Field in 2001 connected a bike path directly to the Golden Gate Bridge. Business is growing. “There are several companies now promoting biking the bridge to Sausalito and taking the ferry to San Francisco,” says Sears.

The result is evident in Sausalito, where some days it seems Bridgeway should be renamed Bikeway. About 10,000 bikes pass through town on a summer weekend, says Adam Politzer, city manager.
Many are sedate tourists, but others are the fast-moving groups of hard-core cyclists termed “Spandex warriors” by local Councilman Paul Albritton for their colorful costumes, five-figure bikes and Tour de France attitudes. A recent police crackdown on crosswalk-jumping cyclists was aimed at making city streets safer.

Jeevan and Ranjeetha Prakumar are husband-wife programmers from India living in Minnesota while on assignment for their company. They’re vacationing in the Bay Area and drove over to Sausalito because they heard it was a “pretty city.”

After a waterfront walk, they’re heading “up the road to Muir Woods” to see the “huge, dense trees.” (They are from the Silicon Valley of India, Bangalore, a city once called the Garden City for its numerous trees. Most are gone now, felled to make room for high-tech development.)

Into the Woods

Every season is tourist season for Muir Woods. The national monument (celebrating its centennial this year) is one of the Bay Area’s most popular destinations, drawing almost 1 million visitors a year.

“It’s a year-round thing,” says head ranger Mia Monroe, who’s been at the park for 27 years. “People come in the middle of the week and wonder why so many people are here.”

A third of the park’s visitors are from very near, the Bay Area, and about 20 percent are from very far, another country — with that number increasing.

“The big challenge is that it’s a small place,” says Monroe. “We want as many kinds of people as possible to enjoy the park. One of our highest callings is to be the first place where people learn about nature and fall in love with redwoods.” To keep the visitor experience special, she says, “we have probably the longest list of no’s in the National Park Service — no camping, no skateboards, no picnics. That allows it all to be lush and be the primeval forest.”

The park has recently declared Cathedral Grove to be a “permanent place of peace and quiet”—no cell phones, no yelling, no public iPodding.

Nearly 20 percent of the park’s visitors now arrive by Golden Gate Transit shuttle. The bus service, in its fourth year, has been “an amazingly successful experiment,” says Monroe.

(This paragraph for locals only: To beat the Muir Woods crowd, go early or go late. To beat the parking crunch, put your boots on the ground and hike in. “There’s nothing,” says Monroe, “like starting your day off right with a good breath of fresh, redwood air.”)

Frank Delvalle, a volunteer firefighter from North Texas, has one of this year’s most sought-after tourist accessories ­— a big black digital camera like the pros have. He’s using it to take a picture of a pigeon on the breakwater in Sausalito.

Delvalle and his wife, Marie, rode the Blue & Gold Ferry over from San Francisco thinking it might take them near the Golden Gate Bridge. It didn’t, but they’ve had a good time nonetheless walking “around town taking pictures of everything.”

And, Sausalito, what does he think? “It’s really pretty, homey, quaint with a modern flair.”

Tomorrow, Tomorrow

Mark Essman’s job is to get more tourists to come to Marin and —this is the hard part—to keep all the locals happy about it. “We still have a lot of room for growth in our industry,” says Essman, executive director of the four-year-old Marin County Visitors Bureau, which was formed after the county identified tourism as an economic growth area. “We ran somewhat under the radar for years. We’re trying to do it in a positive manner, trying to expand on responsible tourism.”

By responsible tourism Essman means the type of activity that brings in business but also meshes with local values that often favor green living over greenbacks. “Marin has so many enviable and natural amenities that we have to be very sensitive to that,” he says. “I would rather have 38 come in one bus than 38 people come in 38 cars. We have a responsibility to our natural wonders.”

Essman is well aware of the irony of encouraging visitors to travel to an area that is attractive, in large part, because it doesn’t have many people in it.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” he says. “All the stats show that areas in West Marin remain incredibly popular. The tourists are coming regardless of whether the people who live there want them or not. Our job is to ensure that they do come, they have a great time and they respect our boundaries.”

One of Essman’s current projects is to come up with a “branding campaign” for Marin, part of which includes a slogan. San Francisco has “Only in San Francisco,” Sausalito has “Why the Bridge was Built,” but Marin as a whole is sloganless.

“We’re going to brand Marin for what Marin is. We’re going to take advantage of the unique quirky positive attributes that Marin has,” he says.

For example? “Outdoor activities, environmentally friendly type of settings, ecotourism, agritourism, aquatourism. The types of things that offer tourists something they can’t get in other places.”

Cheryll and Ken Boslem, New Zealanders, are parking a tandem Blazing Saddles bike near the ferry in Sausalito. They just cycled the bridge from the city, their first stop on a round-the-world trip celebrating their 25th wedding anniversary.

They decided to “go over the bridge to see what was on the other side,” says Cheryll.

And do they like what they see? “Stunning, beautiful. Like being home. Reminds us of Wellington,” she says.

So, will they be back? “Hell, yes,” said Ken.

Memo to Mark Essman

We think we’ve found your slogan: Marin, Hell Yes!

Bettina Nickerson contributed to this story.