SF's 'dirty streets' hurting international tourism as conventions struggle to come back

"A lot of visitors are concerned, concerned for their own safety," travel expert says. "They don't know where to walk."

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Wednesday, September 14, 2022
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San Francisco used to be one of the most iconic tourism hot spots in the world, but today the city is struggling to keep international tourism alive.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- A grim outlook for the future of San Francisco's economic recovery as the city struggles to compete for tourists abroad.

San Francisco used to be one of the most iconic tourism hot spots in the world, but today the city is struggling to keep international tourism alive.

Convention clients are weighing their options: safety and cost. And San Francisco isn't offering an optimistic picture of either these days.

Just blocks from the city's convention mecca, the Moscone Center, people are seen shooting up in broad daylight with homeless tents and trash crowding the sidewalks.

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Or in some cases, clients are concerned about potential harassment. On Tuesday afternoon for example, a man ran up to our unmarked ABC7 News car and threatened to punch out our window as he saw us driving by with a GoPro.

"We have to be honest, we have to tell the truth about what to expect in San Francisco," said Joe D'Alessandro, the president and CEO of SF Travel. "Anyone who's planning a convention is going to see for themselves."

D'Alessandro and his team has talked with more than 2,000 meeting planners this year who schedule conventions in San Francisco.

"A lot of visitors are concerned, concerned for their own safety," he said. "They don't know where to walk."

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Clients have seen firsthand what they describe as the "dirty streets of San Francisco" - scenes like open drug markets crowding the sidewalks and needles lining the streets nearby the convention space.

One man threw a water bottle at our car as we drove by 8th and Mission Tuesday.

It's these daily interactions and problems plaguing the city that's caused former clients to turn to other cities like Austin, Chicago, and Boston.

"Most every customer that we talk to, most every meeting planner that we talk to, talks to us about these situations and the challenges we have," D'Alessandro said. "When they make that final decision, those factors all come into the decision."

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In 2019, the city hosted 40 large-scale conventions at the Moscone Center. This year, they may reach half that. One of the big conventions on the schedule is Salesforce's Dreamforce which opens next week.

But it's not the local conventions D'Alessandro is concerned about, it's the international clients that are hesitating.

"One of the things they're looking at is the conditions on the streets," he said. "We need to be able to walk down the streets and not feel harassed."

To put it in perspective, a quarter of all tourists visiting San Francisco in 2019 were international travelers. But more importantly, that group made up 63% of all tourism spending that year - the largest percentage of any major city in the country, according to SF Travel. Most of that spending was attributed to China - which was the city's number one international market pre-pandemic. Now, it's not even in the top 10.

"Our numbers will not be what they were in 2019 until we see those markets return," he said. "It's really imperative that San Francisco is a safe destination, otherwise the city is going to risk losing a lot."

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