Visitors stand in line for the first ferry of the day to Alcatraz Island on Nov. 2, 2020. Since the famous landmark reopened in August, the majority of visitors have been California residents. (Chloe Veltman/KQED)
One of the most obvious signs of tourism’s potential comeback to San Francisco ought to be the sight of the massive SkyStar Observation Wheel, creating countless Instagram moments as it gently rotates above the tree tops of Golden Gate Park.
Or so you’d think.
On a sunny weekday afternoon, dozens of people wait in line to take the 10-minute to 12-minute ride on the Ferris wheel-style attraction.
But those riders generally aren't visitors to the Bay Area.
"We're mainly seeing San Francisco locals and people from surrounding counties," said SkyStar greeter David Saffold as he checked people's temperatures at the ride's entrance and directed them to the line. Saffold said he’s yet to meet a single real tourist since the wheel finally opened for business on Oct. 21 — an opening that had been delayed for many months because of COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders.
But he said people from San Francisco and surrounding counties have been showing up in droves, despite the $18-per-adult ticket price. (Kids and seniors pay $12 to ride.)
"This is great for the locals," said Saffold. "It gives people something to do, something to enjoy during these mad times."
Tourism is San Francisco’s largest industry. It supports more than 80,000 jobs and contributed nearly $800 million in tax revenue to the city last year.
Most of those jobs and dollars disappeared during the pandemic.
So while Bay Area residents have been making the most of touristy attractions they might normally avoid, SF Travel has started vigorously marketing the city to actual tourists once again.
Since San Francisco officials softened restrictions on hotels, restaurants and attractions in line with health guidelines in mid-September, SF Travel has launched campaigns in collaboration with Airbnb and the nonprofit Visit California. There's also a series of YouTube videos promoting San Francisco featuring local celebrities like filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, Mayor London Breed and former San Francisco Giants’ player Hunter Pence.
SF Travel has also instituted the "San Francisco Safe Travel Pledge", asking potential visitors to fill out an online form agreeing to adhere to 10 health and safety requirements, such as wearing a face covering when in public spaces and maintaining physical distance from others while exploring the city. At the time of writing, 869 people had taken the pledge.
Howard Pickett, SF Travel’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer, said he’s cautiously optimistic about tourism’s return to San Francisco, though it could be a long time before the most lucrative segment, international travelers, sees an upswing.
"It's coming back very, very slowly," Pickett said.
The numbers are nowhere near what they were last year, of course. Yet SF Travel data shows hotel occupancy has risen from just over 15% to around 35% since April. And the number of passengers flying into San Francisco International Airport has almost doubled over the past four months, according to SFO's monthly traffic statistics. Steep hotel and flight price reductions in recent months may have something to do with the recent growth.
"While the recovery is starting now, it's really focused on domestic visitors, and frankly, even just in-state and regional visitors," he said.
A recent visit to San Francisco’s main tourist hot spot, Fisherman’s Wharf, bears this out.
"I do see some tourists," said Mia Harriman, general manager of Cioppino’s, a longtime seafood restaurant with a big, umbrella’d outdoor patio right there on the main drag. "We had people from Texas the other day. They said that they flew out and that was fine, except for the fact there was no bar on the plane. That was their biggest complaint."
But Harriman said the overwhelming majority of customers she's met haven’t traveled nearly as far to sample Cioppino’s signature seafood stew and cocktails.
"We've seen quite a few from San Diego and Los Angeles," Harriman said. "So it seems like a lot of people are coming from Southern California. And they are driving up."
The same thing goes for Alcatraz Island, another of the city's major tourist destinations.
"Recent visitors to Alcatraz are mostly from Northern and Southern California," wrote a spokesman for ferry operator Alcatraz Cruises, in an email.
But an intrepid few are flying in from out of state, like Josephine Santos and Tito Arcos of Jersey City, New Jersey.
"There's less people around, so you can kind of enjoy San Francisco almost like a local," said Santos, standing in line for the Alcatraz ferry on her third visit to the city. "It's a little bit refreshing, actually."
The couple is slightly disappointed that some of the infamous prison's inside spaces, including the cell block, are off-limits right now for COVID-19 distancing safety reasons and a long-awaited seismic retrofit construction project.
But Arcos and Santos are relieved San Francisco is taking visitors’ well-being so seriously. Boats to Alcatraz are operating at reduced capacity, only a maximum of 750 people are allowed on the island per day (down from roughly 5,000 before the pandemic), and there are multiple hand sanitizing stations on the dock, on the ferry and on the island.
"It's good to see how many people are wearing masks, socially distancing and following all the rules," said Santos.
"I'm glad that San Francisco is taking the proper precautions, because this is a really big city," Arcos added. "They're handling it well."
Current city guidelines recommend that people quarantine themselves for two weeks after arriving (or returning) to San Francisco. While self-quarantining isn't required, city officials are considering emphasizing its role in preventing a possible travel-related spike in COVID-19 cases during the holiday season.