Booms and busts are nothing new in Mariposa. But the historic Gold Rush town at the edge of Yosemite, where tourism is now the mother lode, has had an especially bad run lately.
Last year, the Detwiler Fire forced visitors to flee and merchants to close up shop during the busy summer season. In spring, flooding washed out a major highway into town. And for three weeks this summer, the Ferguson Fire did the unthinkable and shut down the area’s top draw, Yosemite National Park.
Now, just as tourist dollars have started flowing again, yet another problem has surfaced: Google Maps. The popular navigation app is regularly showing that roads to and from Mariposa are closed, when really they’re not, making it appear as though the region is still gripped by disaster.
At least four such errors have occurred in the past two months. Efforts by local retailers, county leaders and even the National Park Service to keep the misinformation from reappearing have been unsuccessful, meaning only more lulls in tourist traffic — and an emerging sense in the community that a small town is of little concern to big tech.
“Talking about kicking us when we’re down,” said Jill Ballinger, owner of the River Rock Inn in Mariposa’s commercial district, where business revenue this year has slipped about 70 percent over last year, according to county estimates. “We’ve just started to ramp back up after the fire, only to find that the world’s premier source for directions is saying, ‘You can’t go this way.’”
County estimates don’t account for how much of this year’s losses are attributed to Google Maps, but the county Economic Development Office says it’s significant.
The latest mapping problem became apparent to Ballinger this week when a person called from Yosemite to cancel a two-night stay at her inn because the app showed Highway 140, the road from the park to Mariposa, was closed. It wasn’t.
“I assured them it was open,” Ballinger said, noting that after a drawn-out conservation she couldn’t convince the caller otherwise. “It’s a long way around if you have to go the other way. I wouldn’t stay here either.”
Douglas Shaw, who runs the Yosemite Bug Rustic Mountain Resort north of Mariposa, also knows how hard it is to argue with what’s on Google.
“It’s not like people say they don’t believe you when you tell them the road is open,” Shaw said, recalling countless back-and-forth with potential guests. “But they’re essentially saying Google is more believable than you are.”
Ballinger and Shaw are among many who have reported the closure errors to Google Maps, first trying to find someone to call but settling for the online portal when they couldn’t locate a phone number.
Such reports have gone mostly unanswered, residents say, drawing the concern of the Yosemite Mariposa County Tourism Bureau and the county Board of Supervisors. Both have joined the effort to relay problems to the Mountain View company, as has the National Park Service, but also getting little response.
“It’s like Google just lives in its own universe,” said Supervisor Rosemarie Smallcombe, who has begun seeking help from colleagues in the tech world and at Caltrans — anyone who might know how to get through to the company. “One friend suggested we do a Tweet storm. We don’t have a lot of followers here, but we’ll use the tools we have.”
Google did not respond to questions from The Chronicle about why errors with Google Maps were occurring and why they hadn’t been immediately fixed. A spokesperson said in an email that issues could be reported online and that the company would look into problems relayed by The Chronicle.
Officials at CalTrans also said they had reached out to Google.
The misreported Highway 140 closure appeared on the mapping app late last month. It followed another erroneous closure of Highway 140 for at least 13 days in August, an inaccuracy that has since been corrected. The same thing happened with Highway 49 north of Mariposa, once in August and again in September. These, too, were eventually fixed.
Sections of both highways were truly shut down this year because of fires or flooding and follow-up repair work. The closures included a five-month shutdown of a 15-mile stretch of Highway 49, but the road problems were mostly resolved by mid-August. Yosemite Valley and other parts of the park that were off limits during the 96,901-acre Ferguson Fire re-opened by Aug. 14. Residents were thrilled to have both the park and local highways back in service, though errors with Google Maps sapped some of that enthusiasm.
The Tourism Bureau is still calculating the region’s economic fallout from the past year’s natural disasters, but initial estimates suggest that hotels in the county cumulatively lost more than $300,000 a day for several weeks just this summer. The organization has started running radio ads in the Bay Area to attract tourists in an attempt to help with the recovery.
Meanwhile, a loss of millions in tourist-related tax revenue has forced the county into a recent round of emergency budget reductions that includes cuts to senior services and public works staff, said Economic Development Specialist Tara Schiff.
In downtown Mariposa, Chowchili, a family-owned burger joint just closed. So did The Blue Elephant, a boutique selling children’s clothing.
The federal government has begun offering low-interest disaster loans to businesses.
Jonathan Farrington, executive director of the Tourism Bureau, said the ability of merchants to make it until next summer hinges on accurate information from Google Maps.
“This is the last chance for our businesses to get ready for winter,” he said. “But Google’s trying to kill us here.
“I’m not willing to throw up my hands and give up yet, but there is a feeling of helplessness.”