Bay Area tourism: the corona conundrum

George Jacob, president & CEO, Bay Ecotarium

George Jacob is president & CEO of Aquarium of the Bay & Sea Lion Center in San Francisco and author of the recently released book Museum Futures: The Corona Conundrum. The views expressed are his own

It came swiftly. From the late 2019 murmurs to the dawning of reality trickling in with statistics of impact in January 2020, to the watershed moment when the world saw an exponential unchecked spread of the virus with no cure in place to stem the exposure. As the death toll and infection rates climbed, politicians and health officials scrambled in reactive modes to revert to the very basics of arresting contagious vectors.

A clamp-down, lock-down, shelter-in-place and quarantines started rearing their heads as the new norm. With it came the term “social-distancing” which will remain a new phrase in global dictionaries for times to come.

Pandemics are wide-spread disease outbreaks that affect several countries, impacting mobility, creating major health and economic risks, and in-turn, affecting social behavior. A fast-moving pathogen can ride on various vectors spreading across the globe with a potential to kill tens of millions of people, disrupt economies, and destabilize national security.

Unsanitary conditions, escaping virulent strains from testing and research labs, urbanization, and the lack of public awareness are all factors that could contribute to catastrophic outbreaks.

First detected in the Chinese city of Wuhan, the SARS-CoV-II or the novel coronavirus quickly spread internationally. The World Health Organization (WHO) declared it a pandemic March 11, 2020. As of May 20, 2020, there were over 4.7 million cases of Covid-19 infections across 188 countries with reported death toll of 315,850 with many citing Covid-19 as a probable cause (Source: Johns Hopkins University).

By September 18, 2020, the corona cases had climbed to over 30.2 million worldwide with 947,000 deaths and 20.6 million recoveries. The pandemic sent more than 4.5 billion people or nearly half the world’s population globally into the “social-distancing” mode sending the economy into a tail-spin akin to the Great Depression of the 1930s.

In the ensuing months, the world witnessed the notion of free trade in a globalized economy undergoing a reawakening as dependency of goods and manufacturing, transportation and trade, scales of economy, gig outsourcing and immobile inventory, generated a cascading impact on the intricate, interconnected, complex web of supply-chain and transactions. Stock markets took a beating but are on their way to a cautious climb.

San Francisco being one of the world’s top tourism destinations, took a hit with its museums, attractions and scenic geographic locales bearing a deserted look following the Public Health Advisory in March to Shelter-in-Place.

With the cancellation of every major conference, collapse of hotel occupancy and shut down of museums, gardens, zoos and aquariums coupled with indoor dining, pubs, nightlife, cruises, bus tours and shopping, tourism revenues dwindled and evaporated, with many businesses going bankrupt.

While the San Francisco Travel Association estimates a loss of $11 billion in 2020-2021, the actual numbers could be much higher with 52 major hotels shuttered and unable to book conferences and events.

With high unemployment rates, collapse of the high-rent market, exodus of businesses, freezing of the shopping experience, cancellation of ballet, concerts, sports, exhibitions, expositions, theater, opera, movies and street festivals, San Francisco is grappling with two added problems — the aftermath of California fires as the air-quality turned the skies to an apocalyptic orange haze, with surreal and sadly growing numbers of homeless, addicts and mentally ill occupying sidewalks, empty streets and troubled neighborhoods.

These images captured in the media further impacts tourism, even as travel corridors prep for upcoming easing of restrictions and mobility.

As the city gradually opens in phases, the conundrum for the tourism industry is how best to market this destination which may impact, the spike in Covid cases, triggering yet another shutdown or delay in the reopening of certain businesses.

Tourism is San Francisco’s largest leisure industry bringing in upwards of $8.4 billion in revenues and supporting 71,000 to 75,000 jobs in allied sectors. Interconnected experiences of travel, dining, shopping, hospitality, local flavors, geography, civic amenities, unique destinations, socio-cultural immersion, heritage and adventure enrich the fabric of tourism.

A comprehensive forward thinking strategy is required to rekindle this sector that takes into account the need for a qualitative shift in the tourism experience, to effect a quantitative shift in price-point economic math in the post-Covid, socially distanced tourism dynamic.