Private Boaters Help Keep Catalina Island Afloat During Year of COVID

While visitation to the island was down 143 percent between March 2020 through February 2021 from March 2019 through February 2020, private vessel traffic was only down 12 percent.

AVALON— Empty streets have started to bloom back to life and longer boarding lines have begun to form for the cross-channel carriers, promising signs for a busy summer season on Catalina Island after an economically challenging 12 months due to COVID-19.

“I think probably the most striking thing was during the periods where we were in the most severe closures and you would walk around town and see three and five people, not the 300 and 500 that are sort of normal, the emptiness of the streets was really striking,” said Jim Luttjohann, president and CEO of Love Catalina Island, the Catalina Island Tourism Authority.

With Los Angeles County meeting the state’s requirements to move out of the strictest purple tier of the state’s color-coded reopening blueprint and into the red tier on March 15, the island has begun to invite leisure travelers back. Luttjohann said activity on the once empty streets is now at about 50 percent of normal. Suzy Gardner, the chief development officer for Catalina Island Conservancy, said things looked to also be picking up for the Catalina Express, with whom she shares an office building in Long Beach.

“I can look out of my office and see everyone lined up for the boat so I can definitely see it’s already picking up,” said Gardner.

The island depends heavily on tourism to fuel its economy, typically welcoming more than 1 million visitors a year. Arrivals to the island between March 2020 through February 2021 were down 143 percent compared to March 2019 through February 2020, according to numbers provided by Love Catalina. Cruise ship traffic was down 4,054 percent and the cross channel was down 98.8 percent between March 2020 through February 2021 from March 2019 through February 2020. One thing that COVID-19 and state restrictions left nearly untouched was boating. Private vessel traffic to Catalina Island was down just 12 percent for the same time period.

“I think the volume was a surprise yes, we did anticipate that we would still have some boater traffic because we generally do perennially have a good baseline of boat-based business but I think the number was surprising and a relief,” said Luttjohann,

Total visitor-driven revenue for the city of Avalon was down from $13.85 million in 2019 to $9.28 million in 2020, according to numbers from the city of Avalon. In total nightly mooring fees, private vessels contributed $1.51 million to the city of Avalon in 2020, down just slightly from $1.56 million in 2019. There were even some months in 2020, July, September, October, and December, where the amount of nightly mooring fees collected were up compared to the same months in 2019.

“They’ve really been an amazing baseline for keeping our economy limping along in all honesty,” said Luttjohann.

Will Partridge, the committee chairperson for the San Diego Yacht Club Buffalo Beach outstation on Catalina Island, said he took a few extra trips to the island this past summer because so many events were canceled and there wasn’t much open to do.

“We’re fortunate as boaters to have that island and be able to use it and I think the Catalina Conservancy has really done a good job of adjusting and making the island available to people that want to enjoy the outdoors over there,” said Partridge.

“I think you’re finding more people enjoying the island for its natural beauty by going over there dropping an anchor, enjoying themselves,” said Michael Toerge, the President of the Catalina Marineros, a group of Conservancy members who are boaters or people who enjoy the ocean.

With many businesses, restaurants, retailers, and hotels also taking a big economic hit from the pandemic, supporting local businesses where they could was also at the forefront of many boaters’ minds.

“I think I remember in the beginning going on our first summer fishing trip we decided not to get so many things at the grocery store just for the purpose of going and getting takeout in Avalon and bringing it back to the boat to kind of support the businesses there,” said Will Partridge.

Officials have said if positive cases continue to trend downward, it’s possible L.A. County could move into the less-strict orange tier this month. As of March 23, it had been 40 days since the last positive COVID-19 case on the island, the Catalina Island Medical Center reported.

“Because the community observed the public health safety guidelines that we shared with them and encouraged them to do those things, I think that’s one of the reasons our positive test cases has remained relatively low,” said Tina Minh, the chief communications and development officer for CIMC.

CIMC CEO Jason Paret encouraged visitors to the island to continue to practice all the safety protocols mandated by L.A. County.

“We continue to stay vigilant, even with vaccinations happening,” said Minh.

Minh said COVID-19 has brought new emphasis to the importance of having a medical center on Catalina with enough space to meet the needs of the island, whose population and number of visitors have quadrupled since the hospital opened in 1960. In order to do that and in order to comply with the California Hospital Association Seismic Safety mandate, CIMC has begun the process of building a new medical facility, which will partly be funded by boaters through a special tax on moorings beginning in 2022.

“Access to a full-fledged emergency department is really, really key for tourism and for people to come visit [and] feel safe,” said Minh.

With cases trending down and vaccinations happening nationwide, including at CIMC, many are optimistic for an economic turnaround on the island this year.

“I do have to say we are expecting and hoping for a busy summer,” said Gardner.

Luttjohann encouraged those planning to visit the island to plan ahead and when possible, to book reservations in advance for cross channel carrier tickets, hotels, restaurants, and tours, as many are still under restricted capacity.

As for boaters, Partridge said he expects they will continue to support the island this coming summer season and maybe in even higher numbers as it has been reported boat sales were up in the state in 2020.

“I think it’ll be much the same as last year, maybe even a little more impact in terms of mooring usage, I’ve heard of a lot of people buying boats,” said Partridge. “They’ve invested a lot and making their boats comfortable. I think they plan on using their boats more often, me included.

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One thought on “Private Boaters Help Keep Catalina Island Afloat During Year of COVID

  • April 19, 2021 at 11:02 am

    Good article on Catalina’s recovery. Not sure visitation can be down by more that 100% since that would mean it was at zero. Maybe a typo?



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