Gregory Thomas, The San Francisco Chronicle, July 30, 2022

During the height of San Francisco’s pandemic lockdown, San Francisco’s hottest neighborhood for tourists — Fisherman’s Wharf — was eerily lifeless.

But catch Fisherman’s Wharf on a sunny weekend afternoon this summer and it’s nearly as busy as it was pre-pandemic, when San Francisco was enjoying record-high tourist action. Visitors are wandering, sea lions are barking, the crab and chowder are flowing, and foreign languages fill the air.

“The life and activity and energy has been really good,” said Randall Scott, executive director of the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District. “You can feel things coming back to normal.”

After a brutal two-year stretch interspersed with periods when San Francisco was all but devoid of visitors, the city’s biggest industry appears to have finally turned a corner.

For example, cell phone data shows that the number of people walking around Fisherman’s Wharf from January to July is on target to hit about 80% of the 8.1 million people who padded around the piers during the same period in 2019. Typically, July and August are the busiest months for tourists.

“The life and activity and energy has been really good,” said Randall Scott, executive director of the Fisherman’s Wharf Community Benefit District. “You can feel things coming back to normal.”

After a brutal two-year stretch interspersed with periods when San Francisco was all but devoid of visitors, the city’s biggest industry appears to have finally turned a corner.

For example, cell phone data shows that the number of people walking around Fisherman’s Wharf from January to July is on target to hit about 80% of the 8.1 million people who padded around the piers during the same period in 2019. Typically, July and August are the busiest months for tourists.

“Summer travel is performing significantly better than we’d forecast earlier this year,” said Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of San Francisco Travel. “We think August will be a great month.”

San Francisco’s reputation has taken a beating in national media outlets as city officials struggle to get a handle on homelessness and rampant street drug use. The Financial District has felt strangely dull as some of the city’s largest employers continue embracing work-from-home policies and pull out of downtown office spaces. Further, travel restrictions in key Asian travel markets are dragging into a third year, discouraging people there from traveling internationally, including to San Francisco.

But those ailments haven’t dimmed the city’s tourism appeal. San Francisco was recently featured on Time magazine’s “World’s Great Places 2022” and on a similar list from the New York Times. The Times item emphasized the city’s adoption of carless corridors, which have invigorated pandemic life.

Several factors are helping the city regain its position as a global travel destination.

European countries relaxing travel restrictions has been huge for business here. The numbers of seats available on commercial flights to San Francisco International Airport from Germany, Spain and Denmark as well as London — one of the airport’s top pre-pandemic markets — are higher this year than in 2019, according to SFO spokesman Doug Yakel. That’s in spite of total passenger activity this year hovering at about 75% of pre-pandemic levels.

Experts say it’s hard to envision international travel — a foundational piece of the city’s tourism industry — fully returning without China. More than any other U.S. airport, activity levels at SFO are tied to the East Asian markets of China, South Korea, Taiwan and Japan. With China virtually shut down to visitors and implementing strict quarantine rules for return travelers, a full rebound of incoming visitors isn’t expected this year.

“China was the No. 1 market to San Francisco in 2019, and it’s not even in the top 10 anymore,” D’Alessandro said. “A lot of the recovery we’re seeing has to do with a rebound in European travelers.”

The state’s tourism bureau, Visit California, is beginning to ramp up marketing campaigns in China, South Korea and elsewhere in hopes of recapturing international appeal.

A host of new cultural venues here is also helping keep San Francisco on people’s travel radars.

The recently opened Presidio Tunnel Tops has already made a splash, D’Alessandro said. It was picked up in Time and National Geographic magazine and has appeared in 93 different German newspaper articles, he said.

The Institute of Contemporary Art San Francisco, slated to open in Dogpatch in the fall, helps stoke the imaginations of prospective visitors.

SFMOMA’s Diego Rivera exhibit, which constitutes the largest display of the artist’s collection, is a win for the city. So is Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, a Broadway show performing in only three places in the world right now, one of which is San Francisco.

“People who come here are always going to want to see the Golden Gate Bridge and ride a cable car,” D’Alessandro said. “But to motivate them to make that decision, we have to give them something new.”

Finally, business conventions, which represent a cornerstone of the travel economy, are beginning to reappear in San Francisco after abandoning the city completely for a year and a half. Salesforce’s Dreamforce conference, for example, is set to return to Moscone Center this fall. Still, a full recovery will be tough to achieve without a healthy return of major conferences and business gatherings.

Even with just about every metric point upward, tourism experts don’t expect visitation and spending in the city — or statewide — to eclipse pre-pandemic levels until 2024.

If there’s one thing tourism businesses have learned these two tough years, it’s that catering to a single demographic is risky. Ghirardelli Square, for instance, has repositioned itself to appeal more to residents by attracting hip local restaurants and businesses.

Even Fisherman’s Wharf, which locals have long given over to sightseers, has plans for new offerings geared toward residents. Expect more holiday-season events going forward and, next year, more live music shows, Scott said.

“The pandemic proved it across the big sights,” Scott said. “If you’re relying 100% on travelers, it’s not sustainable.”