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SF homelessness and streets conditions reportedly not hurting tourism

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Nothing to see here

A glass-enclosed pedestrian bridge leading into the second story of a broad building with lettering out front reading “Moscone Center.” Photo by Brock Keeling

Anyone who spent 2019 worried that San Francisco’s suite of street problems would scare off tourism can relax: not only are tourists still coming, they’re bringing billions of dollars with them, despite complaints about the state of the city.

The San Francisco Travel Association (SFTA), a nonprofit dedicated to coaxing tourism to the city on behalf of the businesses that make up its membership, said last week that San Francisco broke visitor records in 2019 for the tenth year in a row. This in spite of the fact that SFTA itself fretted that San Francisco’s homeless crisis—or perhaps some of the headlines it creates in other markets—might be pinching the city’s appeal.

SFTA released 2019 visitor figures Thursday. Here are the key takeaways.

  • SF saw 26.2 million or so tourists last year. In 2018 that figure was 25.8 million, and in 2017 it was 25.5 million.
  • Tourism dollars amounted to roughly $10.2 billion, up from $10 billion the year before—and a huge increase from $9.1 billion in 2017.
  • For the year, the average hotel occupancy was 82.9 percent citywide, a 0.8 percent increase. SFTA President Joe D’Alessandro noted this was only the second year ever that “room nights booked and consumed at the Moscone Center exceeded one million.” The last time this happened was in 2014.
  • One figure that did decline was SFO traffic, but only by 0.5 percent compared to 2018—the airport saw about 57.5 million passengers last year. The declines were all domestic, as international travel increased by 7.2 percent.

In short, more and more people are coming to San Francisco to spend more and more, just as they have been doing for the past decade solid.

SFTA also notes that these are preliminary figures that will be tweaked slightly in the future.

In 2018, D’Alessandro worried what impression the city made on visitors while opining tourism numbers that on one hand broke records but on the other hand were less than he’d previously hoped. “We are losing business. We have groups who say they can’t come to the city,” he said.

The same year, the Hotel Council of San Francisco rang alarms about horrified visitors swearing never to return.

In late 2019, news that Oracle dumped its annual conference in SF in part over “street conditions” inspired a fresh round of panic—or schadenfreude—from observers. And yet, tourism numbers are reliably through the roof every year. It’s a similar story to the constant refrain about that Bay Area and California are supposedly always seeing mass migration elsewhere, but at the same time populations keep growing.

Of course, these ideas are not mutually exclusive. SF’s tourism industry can be both hurt by public perception but still breaking the bank—and the city can be both universally appealing and also ground zero for a crisis. Certainly the problems exist regardless of their effect on tourism.

But when people want to stage politically motivated broadsides against the city, proclaiming a supposed tourism slump is a favorite go-to. But the fact remains there’s just no there there.