Bringing International Travel Back to San Francisco

London Breed
9 min readMar 25, 2022

The importance of tourism to our economy is not a new story. These visitors support our local small businesses and create jobs across our city. They support the arts and entertainment industry. And their spending helps us to deliver the essential services that our residents rely on. But with many Asian markets still barely or not traveling at all, Europe is more important for the near-term success of our city than ever before.

Right now, Europe is a prime market for attracting visitors to San Francisco and into the future. There is a lot of pent up demand, and many people are making decisions about traveling for the coming summer months as well as next year. What we heard from tour operators was that while normally people make plans a year in advance to travel to the United States, a lot of people are making short-term decisions. They have travel vouchers that are expiring, they have vacation time to use, they have the income, and most importantly, they have the desire to go somewhere new.

And we are making progress. Just from the United Kingdom, Germany, and France alone, we expect to receive around 331,000 visitors in 2022 with a projected spending of $612 million, up from $65 million last year. That’s a good start, but we have a long way to go to achieve full recovery back to 2019 when we had $1.4 billion combined spending by those three markets.

The tourism industry generated $257.4 million in taxes and fees for San Francisco in 2021, down 69% from $819.7 million in 2019. These aren’t just numbers. This is funding for critical services and initiatives that residents rely on, like expanded services for individuals experiencing homelessness, additional police officers and community ambassadors on our streets, and the construction of new housing so San Francisco can become a more affordable place to live. Bringing these visitors to our city allows us to continue tackling the challenges that we hear about.

So yes, we’ve got work to do.

That is why I joined officials from the San Francisco Airport and SF Travel fanning out across European cities to do the hard work of supporting our recovery. We worked to build new relationships and strengthen existing ones. We had large and small group meetings and individual meetings. We met with journalists to get our city’s story out in the European markets. We met with airlines and airports, tour operators, and local leaders to talk about what’s happening in San Francisco and answer their questions.

Mayor Breed speaking to airline industry officials, tour operators, travel officials, and media members at events in London, Frankfurt, and Paris.

San Francisco isn’t alone in competing for these visitors. Other cities are spending millions of dollars on marketing campaigns targeting these same places. We can’t just sit back and hope they come. We have to keep working and not take anything for granted. We have to make San Francisco stand out. And we can.

For a long time, San Francisco has benefitted from our advantages when it comes to bringing people and business to our city. We have good climate all year round, stunning natural beauty, a resilient economy built on innovation, and a culinary scene that is second to none. All of these strengths have drawn people to the City, but today is different. We still have all of those things, but we can’t just trust the world to see us and want to come here. That’s why I’ve been working to recruit and retain businesses and conventions, and it’s why we need to work even harder to get visitors to come.

The Benefits of Nonstop Flights from Europe

One of the key things we need to do is establish more nonstop flights from unserved airports and markets. Nonstop flights are essential for how people make decisions for both leisure travel and business travel. Personally, I make my travel decisions based on not having to change planes whenever I can.

When a new nonstop European flight is established with SFO from a previously unserved airport, the impacts are significant. Adding a new one of these flights seven days a week would create $26.2 million in annual economic impact at the airport (as part of $177 million in annual economic impact in the Bay Area) and 126 jobs at the airport (as part of 1,295 jobs in the Bay Area).

Even a new nonstop flight starting out just three days a week would bring 50 more jobs to the airport (as part of 340 jobs overall) and $8.1 million annually at the airport (as part of $45 million dollars in annual economic activity).

That’s just one flight. Those are more jobs at our airports, in our hotels, in our restaurants, and in our stores. We also talked during our meetings with our partner airlines about increasing the frequency of existing flights, which will create even more economic benefit for our city and region. These flights are the building blocks of our recovery, and we have to work for them.

Meetings with Lufthansa Airlines and Brussels Airport.

What I heard sitting at the conference tables in airports and airlines was how important San Francisco was to them. What they wanted to hear from me, most of all, was that we were doing everything we can to support the return of Downtown and businesses to our city because of the importance of business travel in their decision-making. I told them about the work we’ve been doing, and committed to continuing to do everything I can to help our Downtown recover. I’m hopeful to have some significant news about these airlines making decisions soon that results from our work.

Sharing our Story

While I was in Europe, I also spoke with both local European media and travel-focused journalists who are the trusted voices in their countries on the issue of where to go. Yes, we spoke about all the major attractions we all know and love like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Cable Cars, but reporters wanted to hear what was new and different, like all the work we were doing to create more open space in San Francisco. About places like the Tunnel Tops in the Presidio which will open this summer, and the future of what’s happening on the Waterfront, as well as the new outdoor dining all over our city.

We often talk about how important our Shared Spaces program is for our local businesses and our neighborhoods, but they are also an excellent selling point for attracting visitors. Outdoor dining, especially for visitors traveling right now as we all adjust from this pandemic, is crucial. Working with SF Travel, we painted a picture of a new San Francisco emerging from this pandemic that people can be excited about.

We also discussed sustainability, which is a huge draw for travelers from Europe. Many of them want to travel to a place that reflects their European values of sustainability. Thankfully, the work that San Franciscans are committed to through our Climate Action Plan makes us an easy sell on that issue to Europeans.

At times, the conversations turned to questions about safety. I expressed my commitment to continuing to make everyone in our city feel safe, whether that’s our residents or our visitors, by having police officers and Welcome Ambassadors on our streets. I explained that the City is adding over 2,500 new units of permanent supportive housing and hundreds of mental beds to help those struggling on our streets. That we are working to change state laws to improve how we can help those struggling with mental illness. Explaining this work is important to helping people understand what is happening in San Francisco because it’s complex, and it requires our continued focus, and commitment to the resources.

Meeting with the Mayors

I also had the opportunity to meet with the Mayors of both London and Paris. While it was exciting to spend time with both of them and get to know each other better, it was helpful to really understand what they are doing to deal with the shared challenges facing our cities.

I first met Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo at the Global Climate Action Summit in 2018 in San Francisco, so it was great to see her in her own city. Mayor Hidalgo has been very focused on tackling the challenges around the environment and adding bike infrastructure in particular, and it was interesting to hear her perspective on the decisions she made, the pushback she received, and the work she believes needs to be done.

San Francisco and Paris have been Sister Cities since 1997 and we had the opportunity while I was there to oversee the signing of a new expanded Sister City agreement. Through our Sister City relationship, the San Francisco Symphony and the Paris Philharmonic will now work together to create programming and an artist exchange with a goal of reaching our lower-income residents and communities of color that don’t have the same access to these incredible arts institutions. As someone who was fortunate enough to benefit from a program that exposed me to music when I was growing up, which inspired me to join my middle school band, I know how critical exposure to the arts is for everyone in our city.

Mayor Breed and Mayor Hidalgo overseeing the signing of the updated Paris-San Francisco Sister City Agreement.

In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan and I spent time discussing a number of issues, particularly housing. London, like San Francisco, is an incredibly expensive place to live, and Mayor Khan discussed his work to build more affordable housing, and I shared our experiences doing the same, and our work around neighborhood preference, which ensures those homes are built for people in the neighborhood. We also spoke about efforts to bring people back to the office, and how that is impacting each of our Downtown areas and our small businesses. Mayor Khan is coming to San Francisco in May, and I look forward to welcoming him there and continuing to build relationships between our great cities.

All big cities have their challenges, but the important thing is that we can learn from each other. And nothing replaces those face to face meetings we’ve all been lacking and seeing the improvements people have made up close. For example, the day after we met with Mayor Hidalgo, City staff and the Mayor of Central Paris took us on a tour of the bike infrastructure work they’ve done to show us how Paris is being transformed. Reading about what’s happening in Paris around bike infrastructure is one thing, but seeing it up close and experiencing it is more impactful in informing our decision-making as a City.

Mayor Breed receiving a tour of bike infrastructure with Ariel Weil who serves as the Mayor of Paris Centre (Mayor Hidalgo represents the entirety of Paris, with each area having its own local leader as well).

Going to Europe for my first official trip as Mayor really opened my eyes to how we are seen by the world. San Francisco has a reputation that should make us proud, and inspire us to meet our challenges. There’s a magic to our city, and our state, that draws people from all over the world. For example, in London, I met with a company called Boxpark that has successfully activated vacant land in the United Kingdom with restaurants and retail opportunities. While I was impressed with their business and what they’ve created, I was also excited at how they lit up at the idea of bringing their ideas to San Francisco. We are seen as a city with an international reputation for innovation and energy. We need to foster that image, and grow it.

While I know we have a lot of work to do, people are excited about San Francisco — both as visitors and as partners. I’m hopeful that the connections we made on this trip will yield long-term results and show that San Francisco is coming back. We are a small city, but we have a mighty reputation. We must continue to embrace that and do the work to build on our strengths and resolve our challenges.

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