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New flights to China, Europe boost SFO international travel

Two travelers, silhouetted against strong exterior light, walk along the gray carpeted bridgeway leading into San Francisco International. Airport.
International travel to SFO is set to reach a key milestone by year’s end, officials said Monday. | Source: Camille Cohen/The Standard

The Golden Gate's warm glow has not only proven resilient through the pandemic but also appears to be becoming an increasingly magnetic draw for international visitors.

According to figures released Monday, San Francisco International Airport says the number of international flights is now at 97% of what it was in 2019, the last year before the pandemic, and should exceed 100% by year's end.

Although Mexico and Canada are still San Francisco's largest source markets for international visitors, local leaders credit this year's recovery to travel from the United Kingdom and note additional rebounding demand from Europe. 

India has also shown strong demand, with 17 nonstop flights leaving the airport per week—more than from any other West Coast airport—and an 18th set to begin shortly. China's demand had been less strong, with the pandemic's wake limiting tourism plans, but that may change with the lifting of a key pandemic restriction and resumption of previously suspended flights.

"San Francisco is open for business and travel, and we are thrilled to see our international travel demand not only return, but continue to increase at this pace,” Mayor London Breed said in a statement.

“With the coming of APEC, we know the eyes of the world will be on San Francisco. Our city is a world-class destination and with these new air carriers, we can now welcome even more people to experience San Francisco," the mayor added. "This is a great moment for our airport, our city, and our economy.”

APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, is set to take place in the city starting next week, bringing world leaders including U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, along with a host of top CEOs.

SFO has had a busy summer in the wake of its crowning as the best airport in North America by the Airports Council International and the U.S. airport with the best food by Food and Wine magazine.

In recent years, it introduced Air Transat, Breeze Airways, Flair Airlines, ITA Airways, Qatar Airways, Vietnam Airlines and Zipair. In December and January, Starlux and Porter airlines will make their debuts.

In addition, Air China resumed nonstop flights to Beijing Nov. 1, while China Southern and China Eastern will resume nonstop flights to Wuhan on Nov. 11 and Shanghai on Nov. 29. Those flights' resumptions will put the airport at 43 total international flights, matching pre-pandemic levels.

“International travel is a vital part of San Francisco’s tourism industry,” SF Travel's outgoing chief executive, Joe D’Alessandro, said in a statement. 

APEC, launched more than 30 years ago, is a grouping of 21 member economies, including the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea and Australia, aimed at promoting free trade throughout the Asia Pacific region. It hosts multiple meetings in a given host nation throughout the year. 

The main meeting this year will take place Nov. 14-17 at Moscone Center in the South of Market neighborhood, and will be the city's largest gathering of world leaders since the signing of the United Nations' charter in 1945.

George Kelly can be reached at