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Report: California tourism numbers top pre-pandemic levels, Bay Area numbers lag a bit behind

On Sunday, California Governor Gavin Newsom posted a video of himself standing atop San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge to highlight a new tourism report.

“So, I’m up here on the Golden Gate Bridge, a testament to America’s greatness, a testament to California’s greatness, the beauty, the magnificence of the San Francisco Bay,” Newsom said. “What a perfect place to announce our record-breaking tourism numbers.”

Newsom was celebrating the new numbers from Visit California’s “Economic Impact of Travel in California 2014-2023” report, which indicated that in 2023, travel spending in California reached an all-time high of $150.4 billion, a 5.6% increase from 2022.

The report also notes that California travel spending numbers have finally risen above pre-pandemic levels, with the 2023 spending level 3.8% than the 2019 spending level.

Graphic showing the history of travel spending in California. Graphic from Visit California Report: “Economic Impact of Travel in California 2014-2023.”

But San Franciso travel organizations acknowledge: many of these statewide gains have been driven by a surge of tourism spending in Southern California.

The report indicates that while travel spending is rising in both the Bay Area and in San Francisco County, neither has surpassed 2019 travel spending levels yet.

Graphic showing the history of travel spending in the San Francisco Bay Area. Graphic from Visit California Report: “Economic Impact of Travel in California 2014-2023.”

“While it is true that California is recovering and has had a wonderful, stellar year, that in Northern California, specifically in San Francisco, we still have some rebuilding to do for our visitor economy,” said Scott Beck, president and CEO of San Francisco Travel.

Beck noted that travel to San Francisco from Asia has not yet returned to the levels seen prior to the pandemic.

“We have a really, really high dependence on international travel from Asia in San Francisco, it’s a very big part and an important part of our visitor mix and that is still lagging,” Beck said.

Beck attributed this lag in travel to Asia to something called “lift,’ meaning the volume of air travel service into the region. In particular, Beck noted that flights between the U.S. and China were halted during the pandemic. Flights between the two countries have been increasing again, but the travel numbers are not as high as they were before the pandemic.

Beck said there will be another easing of flight restrictions in June and that he expects flights between China and San Francisco to increase in the coming years.

Scott Gentner, CEO of Pier 39, explained that the breakdown of tourists visiting the city shifted during the pandemic and in the years following. Prior to COVID, Gentner said that Pier 39 got about a third of its visitors from California, a third from around the U.S., and a third from outside the country. During the start of the pandemic, international travel went away, Gentner explained.

As COVID restrictions eased in 2022 and 2023, Gentner said Pier 39 saw a resurgence of domestic visitors which has since plateaued. Last year, Gentner said the Pier began seeing more visitors from Europe and this year more visitors from Asia have been traveling in.

“There are definitely tourists here, there are definitely tourists spending,” Gentner said, adding the caveat that where the tourists are spending their dollars around the city can vary.

At Pier 39, which is seeing a boost in interest recently thanks to a surge in sea lion population, sales have been doing well, with 2023 sales on par with 2019 sales, according to Gentner.

“We have a record number of sea lions, it’s something we didn’t know was coming and it’s certainly bringing a more local crowd to Pier 39 and rediscovering some of the great things we have to offer,” Gentner said.

At nearby Fisherman’s Wharf, the executive director of the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District, Randall Scott, said that the pedestrian count there is down 18-20 percent from pre-pandemic levels.

“We’re on the way to making it back to where we were,” Scott said, noting that hotel rates and occupancy rates are still down compared to 2019 in the area.

“We’re doing OK, compared to the rest of the city — I would argue that our numbers are very good — but compared to the rest of California, we’re still significantly down from where they were in 2019,” Scott continued.

To help close the gap, Scott would like to see investment at the state and federal levels to help showcase the area and promote the message that San Francisco is a safe and exciting place to travel to.

Scott had one message in particular for California’s governor:

“Governor Newsom: thank you, thank you, thank you for bringing tourism back to California. Southern California posted those numbers, please bring back and help us bring back the tourist industry to San Francisco,” he said.


Source: NBC Bay Area

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