Skift Take

What makes San Francisco such a great destination seems to reside more outside of its downtown area.

San Francisco’s downtown issues are holding back the city’s tourism recovery. 

Visitor numbers won’t be back to its pre-pandemic level until at least 2025. Convention room night demand won’t start growing steadily until 2025

Tour operators say they’re making adjustments. “All of our loops now start in Vegas instead of San Francisco because San Francisco was just becoming problematic for us,” said Yves Marceau, vice president of product for G Adventures.

Marceau said G Adventures has reduced the time its tour customers spend there, and noted feedback from customers that they don’t feel safe. “Where we might have had a trip that was two nights, we’re now going to do one night,” he said.

David Huang, president and owner of Canyon Coach Lines and National Park Express, said he tries to avoid group trips into San Francisco due to risks like car break-ins. ”It’s too much unnecessary risk you try to avoid,” he said.

The city’s capacity for tourism is higher than ever. In the past, rooms were expensive and tough to get because tours had to compete with meetings and conventions for limited space, said Matt Berna, president of Americas for Intrepid Travel and a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area.  

Now, there will be room for tour operators, but the city has to get the vibrancy it had before the pandemic. “Up to the next two to three years, there will be plenty of capacity for tour operators, but it needs work on getting back on getting that buzz, activities, events and shows,” said Berna.

“For a lot of our customers, we have to prepare them for the general condition of homelessness and people on the street,” said Berna.

Major retailers have left San Francisco’s downtown due to homelessness and crime. Small businesses are also now considering leaving.

The city has been reinvigorating downtown with events such as Union Square in Bloom Music Series and this summer’s night market series, said San Francisco Travel Executive Vice President and Chief Tourism Officer Hubertus Funke.

In May, San Francisco Travel launched a global $6 million advertising campaign called “Always San Francisco” to remind the public that the Golden City hasn’t lost its magic and the negative perception about the city is wrong.

“We’re just trying to remind people that 92% of people who came to San Francisco last year said they wanted to come back again,” said Lynn Bruni-Perkins, chief marketing officer for San Francisco Travel Association, in May.  “Our goal is just to showcase that that the beauty of San Francisco is still here … the arts, culture, food and wine, all of that can still be experienced.”

While the downtown isn’t so strong, there are neighborhoods outside of it that have shown great potential for tourism. North Beach, a popular tourist destination, is busier than it was before the pandemic with new businesses and locals spending more time there than in their downtown offices. The neighborhood will host the first-ever Pizza, Beer and Bagel Festival next month.

Marceau said he’s come across neighborhoods unknown to tourists that were very vibrant and active. He’s spoken with staff about operating more group tours in the vibrant neighborhoods he’s come across instead of the downtown. Problem is the hotels that can accommodate groups operate largely in the downtown.


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Tags: california, g adventures, intrepid travel, san francisco

Photo credit: Mos Sukjaroenkraisri on Unsplash Mos Sukjaroenkraisri / Unsplash

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