Tourism in San Francisco is on the upswing, but how quickly the sector recovers may depend on the decisions of a government halfway across the world.
According to new numbers from the city’s tourism board, SF Travel, total visitors are estimated at 21.5 million people in 2022, or 82% of 2019 numbers. But visitor spending is still lagging, with $6.7 billion in tourism spending expected this year. That’s about 65% of the $10.2 billion visitors spent in 2019.
That’s because travel from Asia—particularly China—is a long ways off from normal. In 2019, China was the second-largest market in visitor volume and the top market for visitor spending. That year, 63% of all tourism spending in San Francisco was by international visitors, and Chinese travelers alone contributed around $1 billion in visitor spending.
Most of that ground to a halt with Covid and the Chinese government’s “zero Covid” policy, which relied on extended lockdowns and draconian quarantine policies in an effort to stamp out the virus. More recently, dissatisfaction with the government’s tactics have led to nationwide protests in China, as well as in the United States.
In the wake of civil unrest, the Chinese government has started to drop many of its quarantine and testing requirements and pull back on the power of officials to lock down major areas.
That’s welcome news for Edward Siu, the owner of Classics Tour, a travel agency that specializes in travel between San Francisco and China. His business took a major hit because of the zero Covid policies—but he’s starting to see a turning point.
“I saw that the Chinese government really listened to the people and what they were asking for,” Siu said.
Based on conversations with officials at the major Chinese carriers China Eastern and Air China, Siu said that major airlines are rumored to be restarting nonstop routes between San Francisco and Shanghai near the end of March in preparation for the summer travel season. Currently, United Airlines is the only carrier running a route between the two cities.
But he cautioned that China’s reopening will be a long process, and that chilly relations between the country and the U.S. could also play a role in how quickly tourists return.
“China will slowly be coming back to normal, but if I’m being honest I think at first we’ll see more people going into China than people from China coming here,” Siu said.
When it comes to overall travel from Asia, there are some promising signs on the horizon.
Taiwanese carrier EVA Air is slated to boost its flights between San Francisco and Taiwan in preparation for the summer, and United plans to restart its nonstop flights from San Francisco to Osaka in January and to Hong Kong in March. There’s also evidence of pent up demand like the crash of Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific’s website shortly after an official announcement of the end of a strict quarantine policy for the city.
“We are expecting a robust rebound in 2023, specifically from Japan and South Korea,” said Hubertus Funke, SF Travel’s chief tourism officer. “While the return of the China market remains uncertain, the recent news that the Chinese government is planning to modify some elements of the zero Covid policy is encouraging.”
Doug Yakel, a spokesman for SFO, said that the airport has recovered nearly 80% of the available international seats this winter compared with winter 2019. If China is excluded, the number goes up to 93%.
“SFO is seeing more flights returning in the coming weeks from various Asian markets including Hong Kong, Taipei, South Korea,” he added.
In order to drum up more tourism, SF Travel is planning a trip to Asia in the first half of 2023 with Japan, Taiwan and Korea as slated destinations. China may also be added if travel restrictions are lifted in time.
The idea is a redux of the 10-day European sojourn that Mayor London Breed and tourism officials took in March that helped to boost the number of nonstop flights between San Francisco and European cities.
Following that effort, the city welcomed more travelers from Europe. The U.K., Germany and France were among the top five overseas markets for visitors in 2022, along with India and Australia.