Closures along iconic California highway hit tourism

Los Angeles (AFP) – A series of storms that pounded California this winter have forced the shutdown of the state’s iconic coastal highway in several areas, spelling economic disaster for the region that relies heavily on tourism.

The closures along Highway 1, one of America’s most picturesque roads, came after heavy downpours led to a number of mudslides and the collapse of a key bridge in February that cut off the town of Big Sur from the rest of California.

Officials said the Pfeiffer Canyon Bridge, which buckled from the storms and is being demolished, will not be replaced for at least six months.

“Since February we went from off season to no season,” Stan Russell, executive director of the Big Sur Chamber of Commerce, told AFP.

He said businesses such as the world-famous Nepenthe restaurant and a number of upmarket retreats had been forced to temporarily shut down as they were no longer accessible.

“Until last week, we had 1,000 people unemployed in a community of 1,500 or so,” Russell said.

He added that some establishments in Big Sur such as the luxury Post Ranch Inn, where rooms average $1,200 a night, were looking at the possibility of shuttling guests by helicopter as the tourist season gets fully underway.

“The losses for the town are certainly in the millions,” he said. “The Post Ranch Inn alone does over a million a month.”

Meanwhile about 450 remaining residents on one side of Big Sur, which has been split in two, have been forced to rely on air drops and backpackers for supplies.

A narrow half-mile foot trail expected to be completed this week will allow residents who live on the south side of the bridge to cross for short periods of time, several times a day.

The scenic Highway 1 runs between southern and northern California and draws tourists from around the globe with its stunning panoramic views of the Pacific.

– Changing plans –

Mary Ann Carson, executive director of the chamber of commerce in Cambria, a little coastal village near the famed Hearst Castle, said the highway closures and bridge collapse had taken a heavy toll on business.

“We are 100 percent a tourism economy and this is absolutely affecting us,” Carson told AFP.

“Big Sur is a destination for many people all over the world … and I think some may be changing their plans now,” she said. 

“I feel bad when tourists come in and say ‘but we came all the way and it’s a once in a lifetime experience’.”

Both Carson and Russell noted that businesses in towns and villages on either end of the road closure were reopening and tourists could still enjoy a scenic drive along at least part of the coastal highway.

“Both at the top and at the bottom, you can go a good 20 to 25 miles,” Carson said. “But you just can’t go all the way through.”

This is not the first time bad weather has forced the closure of parts of the popular route.

In 1983, a series of storms caused major landslides that shut down Highway 1 near Big Sur for 13 months.

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