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Inside California’s budding weed tourism industry

The pandemic has turned California’s travel industry upside down, but it’s a different story for cannabis tourism as marijuana-friendly hotels, pot farm tours, and swanky dispensaries are attracting visitors like never before. Here’s a closer look at what’s happening in the Golden State’s ever-expanding world of weed tourism.

Cannabis tourism
Humboldt Cannabis Tours

The green rush

It makes sense that Humboldt County, the nation’s top marijuana-producing region, is at the center of California’s weed tourism explosion. Aside from its rich cannabis culture, the area beckons with its towering redwood forests, unspoiled beaches, and atmospheric old logging towns. Then the pandemic came along, which jump-started regional tourism and gave rise to an unexpected travel boom in socially distanced destinations like the Emerald Triangle.

“It was phenomenal but also really challenging because we were short-staffed and couldn’t get the supplies we needed,” says Amy Cirincione O’Connor, co-founder of Humboldt Social. “We saw over the last few years that we did not have a slow season, which is normally in the winter.” 

Humboldt Social comprises a group of businesses specialized in normalizing connections between hospitality and cannabis. The thinking goes that if Napa Valley can create a healthy tourism economy around wine, Humboldt can do the same around weed.

Scotia Lodge, the group’s new hospitality property sitting pretty near Humboldt Redwoods State Park, is doing just that in a lovingly restored historic hotel where guests can order from in-room menus featuring a range of cannabis products. Eureka-based dispensary Proper Wellness is overseeing delivery of products such as edibles, pre-rolled smokes, and THC-infused drinks, which guests can consume in the comfort of their own rooms or while chilling in common spaces, including a pool area that’s in the works. 

Scotia Lodge’s privileged location near the iconic Avenue of the Giants pretty much sells itself but the company also leans on resourceful marketing.

“Right now the trend in hospitality is using so much social media and a lot of hospitality brands have become really reliant on that,” Cirincione O’Connor says. “But there are real limitations as to what you can post, some posts get flagged, and the algorithms are not super friendly to cannabis, so we need to use our network and community engagement to build our brand.”

That strategy has proved effective not only for Humboldt Social’s hotels, which includes the rustic-chic Humboldt Bay Social Club, but also for upstart Papa & Barkley Social, a newly created partnership in Eureka featuring a high-end dispensary, open-air consumption lounge, and luxury spa.

The rise of cannatours

The pandemic-fueled travel surge also caught Eureka-based Humboldt Cannabis Tours by surprise, and 2021 is shaping up to be its busiest year ever. Tours led by founder Matt Kurth, a tourism and recreation expert with a passion for all things cannabis, put visitors in direct contact with local farmers, providing an immersive experience that has garnered nothing short of five-star reviews.  

“One of the things that sets us apart is that we actually go to the farms and we really focus on education,” Kurth says. “I think that makes it a different product as it’s not just focused on consumption. We like to get our hands in the soil.” 

Left and Right: Humboldt Cannabis Tours, Middle: Papa & Barkley Social

Kurth believes his small group sizes (as opposed to those of the large bus tour variety) allow visitors to have a more meaningful experience as they’re walked through the entire production and distribution process – and ultimately it’s the glowing customer testimonials that are driving traffic to his website. 

Another tour outfit enjoying immense success lately is San Francisco-based Emerald Farm Tours. Its most popular outing takes guests out on a full-day weed and wine tour to Mendocino County. The company also runs limo-driven excursions and dispensary crawls that visit consumption lounges in some of San Francisco’s trendiest neighborhoods. Once pandemic restrictions began to ease earlier this year, the company saw unprecedented interest in customized excursions that allow for social distancing. 

Emerald Farm Tours

“Demand for private, single group tours has ballooned for us,” CEO Victor Pinho says. “More than half of our guests this summer have opted for private options of our tours. We expected growth in this line of business, but our expectations have been blown away by the data.”

The next big thing?

In Southern California, size apparently matters for several new retail giants looking to cash in on a fast-growing market with a notable cannabis tourism tie-in. Look no further than the July launch of Planet 13, an Orange County weed “superstore” located near tourist mecca Disneyland. The Nevada-based company claims that its colossal 55,000 square-foot property in Santa Ana is California’s largest dispensary complex, and –in a market of some 3 million residents and a whopping 50 million annual visitors–the potential is undeniably huge. 

And then there’s 420 Bank Dispensary, a new 10,000 square-foot smoking lounge and concert venue (look out, Coachella) purporting to be the largest store and consumption lounge in Palm Springs. The resort town has long lured visitors with its sublime hot springs and glorious desert landscapes, and now it’s going all in on cannatourism.

Lastly and perhaps most impressively, a sprawling 100-acre complex is set to open soon in Heber, Imperial County. It’s hardly a bucket-list destination, but upstart Cannaffornia Connection is billing itself as the nation’s largest cannabis complex. The so-called campus will consist of retail stores, a large consumption lounge, manufacturing and distribution spaces, and cultivation centers. If successful, their plan to tap into a heavily trafficked route between California, Arizona, and Mexico would draw mostly transient visitors. 

An important question, of course, is whether all of this growth is sustainable in the long term, not just for retail but for weed tourism and legacy farmers as well. Humboldt Social sees recreational cannabis consumption as a potential boon for agricultural communities if it can be done on a collaborative basis.

“We are seeing now what market oversaturation is doing to the California cannabis industry,” says Humboldt Social’s Cirincione O’Connor. “Some farms are on the brink of collapse. Fortunately, we are not seeing that level of over-saturation with tourism but we could very soon. The farms have the skills and wisdom, the key is to pair them with complementary areas in the industry. ” 

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