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One group of tourists haven’t yet returned to SF And it’s costing the city billions

If you’ve been hearing more snatches of French and German around San Francisco this summer than in recent years, there’s a reason. International flight data show more nonstop inbound trips to San Francisco International Airport are coming from Europe than Asia so far this summer, compared to before the pandemic when Asian visitors made up the bulk of overseas travelers to the city.

During the summer of 2019, 455,581 visitors from Asia arrived at SFO, outpacing the 359,383 European travelers who showed up during the same period. Those numbers were a fraction of that during 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic hit, but tourism from Asia appeared to bounce back stronger in the summer of 2021. Data show travelers from Asia into SFO were more than double entrances from Europe, according to data from the US Department of Commerce.

In June 2022, 53,000 travelers came from Asia while European travelers clocked in at more than 73,000 in the month. The June data were the most recent numbers available.

Most starting were the numbers from China, traditionally San Francisco’s No. 1 overseas tourism market. Just about no travelers have come directly into SFO from mainland China since the beginning of 2021, compared to nearly 118,00 people flying in directly from China during the summer of 2019.

While the city is seeing a welcome rebound of tourism so far this summer, tourism from Asia has apparently slowed down in part because of everything from China’s zero COVID policy and travel restrictions, to quarantine and testing rules for returning travelers in countries like Japan.

Passengers leave San Francisco International Airport’s international terminal.

Ethan Swope/The Chronicle

Last year the Chinese government advised against overseas travel during national holidays like Golden Week, usually the county’s biggest time for tourism. The country started clamping down on international flights earlier this year as the omicron variant drove a wave of coronavirus infections. In May the Chinese government prohibited non-essential international travel as part of its zero COVID policy, dashing hopes that Chinese tourists would once again fill San Francisco’s streets in time for the summer travel season.

And fewer travelers coming from Asia comes with a price tag.

In 2019, nearly a third of all visitors to the city came from international markets, accounting for 60% of all overnight international visitor spending in San Francisco, according to SF Travel.

More than half a million travelers from China, in particular, contributed more than a 10th of the $10.3 billion spent in San Francisco in 2019 by overnight international visitors, according to San Francisco Travel Executive Vice President and Chief Tourism Officer Hubertus Funke.

But that spigot of spending has been turned off. The federal data shows only two passengers arrived directly from China in the first six months of this year. An SFO spokesperson confirmed in an email the lack of nonstop flights from mainland China last year and so far in 2022. The Federal data show some flights are still coming in from China, mainly to New York and Los Angeles.

Stopover flights into SFO from Chinese cities like Beijing and Shanghai are still arriving, but direct flights appear to have virtually disappeared during the travel lockdowns.

“China remains essentially closed for inbound and outbound” travel, Funke said.

But that doesn’t mean travel from Asia has dropped off entirely.

“We have seen recovery from Japan and Korea,” which are important secondary markets for San Francisco tourism, Funke said.

Japan Airlines employees work at the check-in counter at San Francisco International Airport, which has seen a rise in direct flights from Japan.

Japan Airlines employees work at the check-in counter at San Francisco International Airport, which has seen a rise in direct flights from Japan.

Ethan Swope/The Chronicle

Entries from Japan into SFO during the summer of 2019 stood at nearly 60,000 people, and less than 13,000 during the summer of 2021. The most recent numbers show 12,125 travelers came from Japan in June of this year, alone.

Last summer more than 24,319 people flew into SFO from South Korea, a little over a third of the more than 66,000 visitors in 2021. In June, more than 12,000 people came on flights originating from the country.

SFO saw 12,668 visitors from South Korea this past June, still well below the nearly 20,000 people that came from that country in the same period in 2019.

And the more than 8,400 entries from Singapore this past June were truer to 2019 form, when that number was more than 10,000.

Part of the issue is some flights to SFO that were suspended during the pandemic have yet to return, particularly from Asia.

SFO data show there were more than 70,000 seats available on non-stop round trip flights to and from SFO from top Asian cities in Asia like Hong Kong and Singapore in June of 2019. This year in June there were less than half that, at around 23,000.

That is compared to the 53,615 available seats available on round trip, nonstop flights from European cities like Paris and London this June, which is slightly below the more than 57,000 available in June 2019.

As COVID restrictions in other parts of the world have returned, “In Europe most of these restrictions have fallen away,” leading to a surge in visitors from places like France, Germany and the United Kingdom, Funke said.

He was part of Mayor London Breed’s delegation that visited European capitals in March in a bid to bring back international tourists and to pique their appetite for crab rolls and sourdough bowls.

“What we heard (in Europe) then is they were looking at a very strong summer for San Francisco,” said Funke, who is from Germany himself. “From what I heard and from what we see on the ground, a lot of it is driven by pent up demand.”

There is also some pent up European shopping energy being unleashed on San Francisco.

United flight UA900 from London Heathrow lands at San Francisco International Airport.

United flight UA900 from London Heathrow lands at San Francisco International Airport.

Ethan Swope/The Chronicle

SF Travel projects that 269,700 people will visit the city from the UK this year, spending an estimated $472.4 million. That is a sizable amount, but still less than the $642 million spent by 380,000 visitors from the UK in 2019, Funke said.

He said while the Euro and the Pound have been weakening against the US Dollar and inflation continues to rise, Europeans who socked away money during the pandemic seem to be saying “what the hell” and booking flights westward regardless.

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