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San Francisco Travel Says Recovery Is Sluggish But There Is Optimism About 2022 And Beyond

2021 visitor volume still down 39 percent to 2019. 2022 anticipated to achieve 73% of 2019 spending levels. More international visitors and conventions needed for full recovery


August 25, 2021 – The San Francisco Travel Association presented the latest updates on global tourist visitation and spending to members today at their 2021 Visitor & Lodging Forecast Forum, the first in person event hosted by the company since the outbreak of Covid-19 in March 2019.  After a significant dent in 2020 followed by a sluggish recovery in 2021, the Association is forecasting further improvement of visitor volume and spending for 2022, with an expected volume of 23.1 million and spending of $6.9 billion in 2022.  

San Francisco’s destination marketing organization is projecting a total of 15.9 million visitors to the city for 2021, still down 39 percent to 2019. Visitor volume is expected to recover to 23.1 million for 2022, which will be an increase of 45 percent from 2021, but still down 12 percent to pre-pandemic levels. Gradual improvement in 2021 has been driven primarily by domestic visitation.

Visitor spend is expected to improve from $2.7 billion in 2020 to $3.9 billion in 2021, growth of 49 percent to 2020 but still down 58 percent to 2019. The forecast for 2022 is $6.9 billion, growth of 74 percent to 2021 but down 27 percent to 2019.

Visitor growth for the entire region, including the Peninsula (San Francisco International Airport, San Mateo, Redwood City), the East Bay (Oakland, Berkeley, Hayward), Marin and coastal San Mateo County and wine country (Napa and Sonoma counties) grew 29 percent in 2021 to an estimated 40.6 million tourists, which is still a 30 percent reduction when compared to 2019. Forecast for 2022 reflects growth of 27 percent from 2021 to 51.5 million visitors, an 11 percent reduction when compared to 2019.

Visitor spending for the region is projected to reach $9.9 billion for 2021, up 39.3 percent from the previous year but still down 50 percent to 2019. 2022 is expected to grow 49 percent to $14.7 billion, still down 25 percent to 2019. 

Citywide conventions fighting their way back

On the convention side, San Francisco Travel experienced a significant loss in business for 2020 and 2021.  After a record 1.2 million definite convention room nights booked in 2019, the year 2020 closed on a mere 121,000 convention nights.  2021 is expected to realize less than 50,000 room nights. To date 70 groups have canceled off the books between 2020 and 2021. Cancellations of citywide conventions alone represent a loss in direct spending of over $1.0 billion. Convention room nights booked for 2022 are currently 69% of 2019 actual, but uncertainty regarding convention attendance remains. 

International visitation and spending lagging behind

San Francisco Travel reports that the city welcomed 700 thousand international visitors in 2021, an increase of  40 percent over 2020, but still down 76 percent to 2019.  International visitors’ projected spend was $1.5 billion in 2021, representing growth of 49 percent but still down 71 percent to 2019. Projections for 2022 forecast a volume of 1.7 million international visitors and $3.2 billion of international visitor spending. Traditionally, the international markets have accounted for a much higher percentage of visitor spending. Since recovery is being driven mainly by domestic travel while the U.S. is keeping our borders closed to international visitors, visitor spending will take longer to recover.

International visitors comprised 17 percent of overnight visitors and 49 percent of overnight visitor spending in 2020 and is expected to comprise 14.5 percent of overnight visitors and 45 percent of overnight visitor spending in 2021. Projections for 2022 estimate these percentages to be 21% for volume and 55% for spend.

Overall, in 2021, San Francisco experienced 76 percent fewer international arrivals compared to 2019, with a drop from China of 86 percent and 79 percent from Europe. In 2022, international arrivals are still forecasted to be down 42 percent compared to 2019.

The top five international markets for visitor volume in 2021 were Mexico, United Kingdom, Canada, China, and India.  The top five international markets for visitor spending were China, Mexico, United Kingdom, India, and South Korea.  Moving forward, international recovery will be led by Mexico and Canada. Volume from European markets is expected to recover in 2024, Asia will lag Europe by a year returning in large part by 2025.

Comeback of international visitors and large gatherings highly anticipated

“2020 and 2021 have been extremely challenging years for the hospitality industry world wide. Around the globe, urban destinations have been among the hardest hit, and San Francisco is no exception to that,” said Joe D’Alessandro, president and CEO of San Francisco Travel. “While we are encouraged by the first signs of recovery that we are seeing in 2021 compared to 2020, the unknowns related to the delta variant, and the persistence of global travel restrictions for tourists, make reliable projections for the winter and the year ahead very difficult. We will certainly continue to move forward on the road to recovery in 2022, but the road might remain bumpy as long as conventions are not fully back and international tourists unable to visit San Francisco.”

Still, there is reason for optimism. Jon Kimball, area general manager for Marriott International and current San Francisco Travel Board Chair, added, “If nothing else, this crisis has demonstrated the importance of connections and community. We've seen businesses working together, working with the City, and working across neighborhoods and even regions to find new ways to keep doors open, keep staff employed, and keep servicing customers.”

The San Francisco Travel Association is a private, not-for-profit organization that markets the city as a leisure, convention and business travel destination.  With partners in every neighborhood of San Francisco and across the Bay Area, San Francisco Travel is one of the largest partnership-based tourism promotion agencies in the country.

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