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High atop Golden Gate Bridge, Newsom touts tourism comeback; Bay Area lags state

Overall California tourism bounces back but Bay Area lags
Overall California tourism bounces back but Bay Area lags 04:25

California Governor Gavin Newsom proclaimed the state's tourism industry has bounced back and exceeded 2019 pre-pandemic levels, while some business owners in the Bay Area report they are still waiting for the rebound.

In a video released on Sunday morning, the governor can be seen standing on top of the Golden Gate Bridge to announce "our record-breaking tourism numbers. Last year, $150 billion of investment from tourists around the globe coming to the great state of California." 

Newsom cited a new report compiled by Visit California. But the numbers in that report showed while California as a whole saw more tourism spending, the San Francisco Bay Area is still lagging. Visit California reported the Bay Area received $37.7 billion in tourism spending in 2023, down from $39 billion in 2019. Many small businesses that rely on tourists said they're still recovering from the pandemic.

"We're just waiting for the tourists to come and for the season to really get going," said Pier 23 Cafe owner Mac Leibert as he pointed to the empty tables. "And as you can see on a Sunday afternoon brunch, it's not happening."

Leibert said they are surviving, not thriving. He said his business was down about 25% to 30% in 2023 compared to 2019.

"You need people coming through the door to survive," said Leibert. "And when they're not coming, it's hard to keep the doors open."

He's not alone, the owner of San Francisco Deluxe Tours, Maneet Sohal said his tour bus business was down about 40% in 2023 compared to 2019.

Pedicab operator Karel Nunnink said his business is also down by at least 20%.

"I'm the oldest guy out here at 77," said Nunnink. "We've been having to work harder for less cash, basically. 2019 was good. 2023, the thing that has died is the international tourists."

And that's what industry leaders are blaming, specifically the Asian market. Scott Beck, the CEO of San Francisco Travel said only about 50% of the Chinese tourists have returned. And traditionally, he said Chinese visitors spend big money in San Francisco.

"Pre-pandemic, China was our largest long haul overseas market, over $2 billion a year spent in our market," said Beck. "Right now, capped by the governments of the U.S. and China, air service is capped right now at 50% of pre-pandemic levels. So we can't get back to what we would call normal baseline visitation because you do not have the seats in the airplanes to make it happen.

He said Los Angeles and the Sourthern California market experience similar problems when it comes to Chinese tourists. But they get a lot more domestic visitors because of their size and theme parks like Disneyland.

Experts said the domestic visitation has pushed the Southern California tourism industry well beyond the 2019 levels. And they believed the strong rebound in the southern part of the state is what's driving up the entire state's tourism spending.

Visit California reported Los Angeles County's tourism spending was $32.6 billion in 2019. That number reached $34.1 billion last year. Orange County received $14.4 billion in tourism money in 2019. It pushed up to $15.8 billion in 2023. San Diego County saw $13.7 billion in 2019 and that spending increased to $16.1 billion in 2023, according to Visit California.

Scott Gentner, the CEO of Pier 39 in San Francisco, said they've been fortunate compared to other businesses, their sales were roughly the same in 2023 compared to 2019.

"The convention business is still down. For 2024, we expect it to be down and really not rebound until 2025 and beyond," said Gentner.

Leibert said while tourism spending is moving in the right direction, San Francisco still has a lot of work ahead, especially on improving its image and reputation.

"We're really hanging our hat on that it's going to be good, and tourism is going to come back, and people are going to want to go out and spend money," said Leibert.

Local industry experts predicted the number of Chinese tourists will return to the 2019 levels by 2026. 

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