Pier 39, Fisherman's Wharf comeback underway after 87% drop in visitors during pandemic 

Liz Kreutz Image
ByLiz Kreutz KGO logo
Tuesday, June 1, 2021
Comeback underway at Pier 39, Fisherman's Wharf after pandemic
Although we have a long way to go before we get back to pre-pandemic life, some iconic tourist destinations in San Francisco are slowly beginning to bounce back.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Among the many places in San Francisco that sat dark and quiet during the pandemic, Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 were top on that list.

For a good part of a year, little to no tourism in the city has made it so hard for so many of the businesses in this area -- which saw an 87% drop in visitors.

But life along this iconic tourist corridor, even if slowly, is beginning to bounce back.

According to Pier 39 President Taylor Safford, the pier typically gets 15 million visitors a year. Over the past 12 months, they've only had 2 million -- about 13% of normal.

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A recent weekday visit to the pier showed a much livelier scene: a steady stream of people watching the sea lions, riding the carousel, shopping and eating at the various restaurants. But it's still not even close to normal. Safford says they're now at roughly 20% of their pre-pandemic levels.

The biggest shift for the pier is who is coming. Before the pandemic, roughly 20% of visitors came from the nine counties that make up the Bay Area. Now, 70% of visitors are local, Safford said.

"So, it's shifted dramatically," he explained. "Which is wonderful because we're having an opportunity to have so many more people visit us than probably would have normally."

That's a trend noticed by the pier's Aquarium of the Bay. President George Jacob says during the pandemic their memberships have actually gone up.

"When we started offering virtual tours and virtual programs our membership started going up," Jacob said. "It's mostly locals and we're happy they're discovering local attractions."

But that's just one silver lining in a year that's been extraordinarily challenging. At the start of the pandemic, the aquarium had to lay off 50% of their staff and furlough an additional 20%. Since reopening to limited capacity in March they've been able to rehire some of those workers and hope to rehire even more as the summer goes on.

"We're looking forward to the June 15 announcement of perhaps 100% reopening," Jacob said. "We do require 75% to break even, but 50% is better than zero, better than 25%, so we'll take whatever we can."

Fisherman's Wharf is also hoping for a comeback.

According to Fisherman's Wharf Community Benefit District deputy director Laura Schaefer, the area has had a 202% increase in visitors this spring compared to last and they are remaining optimistic about that only growing in the summer ahead.

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When San Francisco went into shelter-in-place over a year ago, the city looked like a ghost town. Hard hit - the areas that count on tourists to fill shops, restaurants, and hotel rooms.

Among the restaurants doing relatively well is the historic The Buena Vista Cafe. General Manager Larry Silva said Irish coffees to-go, along with loyal customers, is what saved them.

"Having a high percentage of Irish coffees versus a normal restaurant where you have a high percentage of food, we've always been able to stay in the black," Silva explained.

But remnants of the pandemic are still very visible in the area, especially on Jefferson Street where some of Fisherman's Wharf's longtime restaurants -- such as Pompei's Grotto and Castagnola's -- are boarded up. It's unclear if they'll ever reopen.

"I feel bad, because a lot of my neighbors could not make ends meet even with PPP," Silva said. "Especially on Jefferson street because that's a struggle there, some of them can't do outdoor."

Silva hopes that with hotels reopening in the area more restaurants will be able to reopen, too.

"We're expecting a really really good summer and we're hoping that the places that are boarded up still have enough ability to reopen," he said. "We need them all to be open."

Businesses catering to tourists are also starting to see an uptick in customers.

RELATED: How will San Francisco's Union Square, downtown businesses recover from COVID-19 pandemic?

Nathan Withrington is the owner and co-founder of GoCars Tours. Although his Union Square location is still closed, his location on Beach Street is open and almost back to pre-pandemic levels.

"We were relentless in marketing to locals," Withrington explained. "We really went heavy on social media and local marketing and were very successful in getting people from the Bay Area out and renting. It's the local market right now that's making the difference between being in business and not being in business."

Still, it hasn't been easy. At the start of the pandemic, his revenue dropped to zero. His wife, who also works in tourism, lost her job. Withrington said they decided to sell their home and move their family north to Guerneville to save some money.

"We figured we would put a plan together, sell our house, cash out, move somewhere where we can hunker down and wait and see what happened," he said.

After a year of extreme ups and downs, Withrington is cautiously optimistic as business begins to pick up, but enough so that he is moving his family back closer to San Francisco.

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"It's looking good," he said. "I'm a lot more confident now."

Back at Pier 39, as we explored the arcades, the rides, the sea lions, it really did feel alive. Safford said just five businesses out of 100 on the pier closed because of the pandemic. A success rate they are proud of. And some new stores there have even opened.

Still, as hopeful as things seem, it will likely take years to reach a full recovery. Safford said international travelers are vital for their businesses since they typically spend four times that of a local.

But compared to a year ago, seeing people walking around, enjoying the pier, still feels really, really good.

"It's magical," Safford said, smiling. "I hear the angels singing."

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