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Valley Tourism - A Billion Dollar Business?

California is a destination for people all over the world, but could the Central Valley be the new hot spot?
Visitors from around the world come to Central California to visit our gorgeous national parks and coastline.

How do our local metro areas tap into those tourism dollars, especially at a time when the economy is suffering?

CBS47’s Alexandra Limon gives us a closer look a the multi-billion dollar tourism industry, and explains how it’s not only staying afloat... but is growing.

Fresno might not be the first place that comes to mind when planning a vacation, but the Central Valley is attracting more and more tourists, which is bringing in lots of dollars.

We spoke with Layla Forstedt with the Fresno/Clovis Convention & Visitors Bureau. "In Fresno County is $1 billion, so we're talking about thousands and thousands of visitors," said Layla. Tourists like Georgina Smith, a British tourist backpacking through California, who stopped in Fresno. "I wanted to come to just come see this underground garden," said Georgina. The Forestiere Underground Gardens on Shaw Avenue in West Fresno were built in the early 1900's by Baltasare Forestiere, an Italian Immigrant.

Lyn Kosweski with the Forestiere Underground Gardens said, "We don't know how far he went exactly because he had no blueprints. He would think it, and then he would build it." It's believed at one point, the gardens included living spaces, an aquarium, citrus trees, and more. Essentially, Forestiere took his entire world underground. Lyn Kosweski is Forestiere's great niece and she feels it's important to share the garden's history and uniqueness. "Would really like for people to recognize that this cannot be repeated. You cannot go somewhere else and do this again," said Lyn. Something unique to an area is what attracts visitors. In 2011, people came to the Underground Gardens from all 50 states and at least 84 different countries.

Other Valley cities outside of Fresno have much to offer too. "The unique things such as the Fossil Center in Madera, they can go to wineries, rodeo, any festivals because we have so many festivals," said Layla Forstedt with the visitors bureau.

The City of Fresno funded the Fresno / Clovis Convention & Visitors Bureau for years, but that changed last year. "Serious budget issues... so we found out in May of 2010 that we were no longer going to be funded," said Layla. The bureau went from an operating budget of $1.2 million -- to zero. "It affected us obviously. We went from 14 people to 7 people and we're now back up to 10," said Layla. The president and CEO has been with the bureau since 2007, just before the economy tanked. But despite the obstacles, she thought outside the box and found new funding through the hotel industry.

The Valley attracts tourists by spotlighting unique, hands on activities.

There may be a misconception that there's nothing to do in the Central Valley, but attractions like the Fresno Chaffee Zoo for example, offer something fun for the whole family. You can even pet the stingrays and feed giraffes too. Adrienne Castro with the Chaffee Zoo said, "Last year we had over 500,000, which was a record breaking year for us." And that number is expected to keep growing. "This year we're opening up Sea Lion Cove and we're going to be getting otters, so I just expect a lot more folks this year," said Adrienne.

Another big draw to the area is the Fresno State for it's wine tours, given for educational purposes. The university has one of the most expansive wine making programs in the country. John Giannini, a Fresno State Winemaker said, "Bring in grapes, make wine, bottle it, and sell it." Visitors can get a behind the scenes look at the entire process from start to finish. The public can get similar experiences on the Fresno and Madera Wine Trails.

Another huge tourism sector is sporting events. Andrew Smith with the Fresno / Clovis Convention & Visitors Bureau said, "My job basically is to work with tournament directors and tournament sporting planners to help bring their event here." Youth sporting in particular is huge. Hundreds of room nights. Hundreds of kids that come in and play," said Smith. The United States Bowling Conference is one of the many sporting events for adults. One bowler we spoke to said, "Once we're not bowling, we go shopping, ride around the city looking at the city, so we can tell our families we'd like to come back again."

Layla said, "These people have all done the Disneyland's and the Magic Mountain's, and so forth, and they're looking for a unique, hands-on, real experience." And California's Central Valley is offering that kind of experience. And it's paying off, thanks to people like Lyala, who would not give up. And also to adventures like Georgina, the British backpacker. "I started off in San Diego and I'm couch surfing actually," said Georgina. After visiting the hidden gem Forestiere Underground Gardens, she has this to say about Fresno: "It's not just a place to pass through. You have to come here and stay."

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Fresno, CA

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