George Jacob FRCGS is the President & CEO of the Smithsonian Affiliated Aquarium of the Bay (and its seven branches) located at the most visited tourism destination in San Francisco at Pier 39. He serves on the Board of Directors of ICOM US and US Travel.
Tourism and Hospitality sectors in San Francisco face extreme on-going challenges. For the last decade or so, the steady decline in tourism has had a cascading ripple effect across multiple allied industries resulting in systemic and significant revenue losses and problems that continue to drag down the trends across the board. Political window-dressing and a misplaced sense of romantic nostalgia of “I left my heart in San Francisco (Tony Bennett 1961)”, are proving detrimental to visitor confidence- with both those contemplating a visit to San Francisco as well as those who paid a visit and faced its shocking reality.
The cumulative impact of homelessness, high crime, open street substance abuse, breakdown of law and order, human waste on unclean and unhygienic streets, high cost of hotels, shortage of labor in the hospitality and allied sectors, lack of affordability and the woes of commuting two hours for work, lack of quality infrastructure, paucity of incentives to attract and retain business, millions of square feet of empty office and retail space in the heart of the financial district, connectivity and airlift, rapidly diminishing interest in hosting conferences, reduction in Cruise ship arrivals, poor night life, below average restaurants and or restaurants with a great ocean view, poorly kept parks and public gardens, neglected piers, third world pot-hole ridden streets, absence of imagination in destination marketing and branding coupled with mind-numbing stories in the media about how the city intends spending $1.7 million on a 150 sq.ft. public toilet to be built in three years— has sent tourism spiraling down the toilet.
The list is long and hard to swallow given the massive $13,1 billion annual budget (2022) and small size of the city with a population of less than a million! It was no surprise that when the pandemic hit and the city ground to a halt for 16 months, tourism was its first casualty that went on life support till rigor mortis set in. With no triage and boosters to inject new life into the veins of its 27 attractions, San Francisco floundered with ad-hoc measures, never convening a single pan-attractions meet to brainstorm a resilience strategy and promotions plan prior to the lifting of the shelter-in-place public advisory in June 2021.
As the tourism and hospitality sector steps into 2023, it is in need of both short-term fixes and long-term solutions to turn the tide.
First, there is a need for an integrated comprehensive approach to remove the homeless from the streets to hospitals for those mentally ill or to rehab facilities for the addicted and a campus-based lifestyle shelter where the homeless are given a path out of poverty. This has to be done swiftly and imaginatively with a solutions-driven think-tank- as it is abundantly clear the current bright ideas have fallen short. Given the hundreds of millions already spent on temporary non-working measures, a new approach must be explored with a heightened sense of urgency. Second, many countries have tourism police that monitor tourism safety, cracks down on car break-ins, removes illegal vendors and traffickers from the side-walks and offers ambassadorial presence beyond the confines of the airport arrival terminals.
Third, San Francisco must rethink its approach to public art, vandalism and city beautification with incentives for local businesses to enhance their visual appeal. Torn shabby awnings in China town and Fisherman’s wharf, overflowing garbage bins, street litter, dry and empty public flower beds, in conjunction with an ugly cob-web of wires cluttering the skies that electrify muni buses (when newer battery alternates have been plying in every other major tourist city for years), fading zebra crossings begging for a fresh coat of asphalt and paint, tin and wood shanties masquerading as covid-era outdoor health-induced “safe” dining experiences blocking parking and bike lanes, all must be addressed in the visual vocabulary that places a premium on the appearance aesthetic of San Francisco.
Fourth, the collective engagement of all its attractions, including zoos, aquarium, museums, heritage sites, landmarks, monuments, architectural as well as natural features, and indigenous native American assets, must collectively operate in an ecosystem of support sectors in the hospitality industry to bring back upwards of 25 million tourists (SFO handled 57.8 million passengers in 2019 that dropped to 24 million in 2021) each year with a daily spending north of $35 million.
Fifth, the city must craft an extraordinary vision unlike any other destination in the world for what it can become in the next 50 years- positioning itself as a singularly unique mecca of arts, culture, architecture, tech infusion, ease of business and permitting processes. The speed of execution is paramount. Examples of tourism excellence and pace of development abound in world class cities like Amsterdam, Dubai, Singapore, Qatar and Shanghai, to name a few, where massive multi-billion-dollar projects are delivered to fruition in record time.
Re-build the destination already blessed as a mecca of tech and soft talent, with amazing natural beauty that stretches beyond the hundred-mile radius, with a purpose driven meta design- and they will come!
[Above photo Caption: Delegates from All India Management Association attending the Berkeley Haas Innovation Forum, walk through one of the longest tunnel systems in the United States that holds 24,000 marine animals at the Smithsonian-affiliated Aquarium of the Bay, combining business and leisure tourism in San Francisco. Photo Credits: Hunter Coughlin]