Skip to main content
Business

Starved for tourists, San Francisco turns to Chinese influencers

A man excitedly presents a large bowl of seafood soup, prominently displaying mussels and rich broth, in a vibrant, decorated restaurant.
Alex Bao, a travel influencer from China, explores the North Beach neighborhood and restaurants in a sponsored trip. | Source: Courtesy Alex Bao

For Alex Bao, a travel influencer known as “Super Bao” on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, a bowl of cioppino was the highlight of his trip to San Francisco in late March.

"The seafood caught that very day, cooked with a rich tomato soup base, paired with a crispy piece of bread," Bao gushed to his 1.27 million followers on Weibo, “is simply perfect.”

Bao's posts on Weibo and other Chinese social media sites in early May garnered thousands of likes and hundreds of comments. He was then invited to share his experiences on a popular radio station, Beijing Joy FM, to recommend San Francisco’s attractions. His objective was clear—to showcase the city to his Chinese audience and help bring more Chinese tourists to San Francisco and California.

“I must follow this [food tour] itinerary,” one Weibo user commented on his post. Bao responded, “A must-do! Go eat them! Haha” with smirking emojis.

But Bao’s boosterism didn’t come for free. Visit California, a state-affiliated nonprofit with a mission of promoting tourism, invited him to San Francisco and sponsored his trip.

It’s not the first time Visit California has worked with foreign influencers to champion the Golden State, but the practice stalled during the pandemic. Now, the group is homing in on influencers from a specific country—China—whose tourists’ spending power is more important than ever as cities like San Francisco scramble to recover badly needed tourism revenue. 

A glass of white wine next to a charcuterie board featuring various cheeses, prosciutto, almonds, and olives on a dark table.
Chinese influencer Alex Bao enjoyed a cheese and charcuterie plate at Jax Vineyards’ tasting room in SoMa. | Source: Courtesy Alex Bao

Because China is reopening now, the agency confirmed that Bao and three other travel bloggers with massive followings are the first group of Chinese influencers that the organization sponsored to come to California since the pandemic. They are expecting more partnerships like this with influencers from different countries, too.

Bao’s trip was meant to spotlight food and wine, while the other three influencers focused on culture, lifestyle, and outdoor road trips in Southern California and along Highway 1.

The total cost of Bao’s trip is unclear, but the agency said it partnered with airlines, hotels, car rental companies, and restaurants to host Bao's weeklong journey in Northern California, which included stops in Napa Valley and Tri-Valley.

‘It has changed but also hasn’t changed’

Bao has visited San Francisco before, and he said he came away with some new impressions of the city this time.

“San Francisco—it has changed but also hasn't changed,” Bao told The Standard in Mandarin on Wednesday. “It's still the same old San Francisco. The diversity, restaurants and entertainment venues look quite nice and the same.”

But the city doesn’t feel as lively as it did before the pandemic, he said. He pointed out construction work is seemingly all over town but said Presidio Tunnel Tops, which opened in 2022, amazed him.

Bao is a solo traveler who can produce content independently and speaks fluent English, having lived overseas. This makes him especially competitive in the travel influencer and marketing industry, and he often receives offers of free trips from Western travel agencies.

The local tourism nonprofit San Francisco Travel collaborated with Visit California to provide guidance and recommendations for Bao.

A man in a white jacket smiles, presenting a large, puffed bread and a tray of various colorful dishes in a busy restaurant.
Alex Bao dines at the newly opened fine-dining Mediterranean restaurant Dalida in San Francisco during his trip sponsored by Visit California. | Source: Courtesy Alex Bao

During his trip, Bao indulged in wine and Italian food in North Beach, dining at the iconic Sotto Mare, where he ordered the cioppino, and other famous restaurants like Tommaso's, Tony's Pizza Napoletana and Liguria Bakery. He also visited the Presidio and tried the newly opened fine-dining Mediterranean establishment Dalida, and he sampled a wine flight at Jax Vineyards’ tasting room in SoMa.

“Promise me you will try these restaurants in San Francisco,” Bao posted on Xiaohongshu, a popular social media site among younger Chinese people living in their home country and abroad. "They are awesome(绝了)!”

Courting China's tourists

Travelers from China play an outsize role in California and San Francisco's tourism industry, because they spend more money in the city than visitors from other parts of the U.S. As the country reopens, China is expected to be the top overseas market for the number of tourists visiting San Francisco and the amount of tourist dollars spent in the city, according to the Global City Travel database by Oxford Economics.

Though these numbers are bouncing back, they still aren’t where they were before the pandemic. Roughly 370,000 Chinese visitors are expected to come to San Francisco and San Mateo County, where the San Francisco International Airport is located, in 2024, spending more than $800 million. In 2019, the arrival and spending numbers were 518,000 and $1.2 billion, respectively.

Mayor London Breed personally met with multiple airlines in China last month to encourage them to offer more flights to San Francisco. 

According to the Mayor’s Office, there are 25 flights per week between China and San Francisco. The city is expecting that number to increase to 35 by the end of the calendar year—an improvement but still below the roughly 50 flights per week before the pandemic. 

“Mayor London Breed is proud that SFO is leading the way in the recovery of China flights compared to all other U.S. airports,” said the Mayor’s Office in a statement.

Visit California also recently introduced a new slogan, describing the state as an “ultimate playground,” while Gov. Gavin Newsom stood on top of the Golden Gate Bridge touting a strong comeback in tourism numbers and “the beauty and magnificence of the San Francisco Bay.”

Lori Lincoln, San Francisco Travel's vice president, said she was thrilled to see Bao’s posts on Chinese social media. She’s looking forward to more of China’s influencers coming to the city as sponsored guests in the future.

“Firsthand reporting like [Bao’s],” she said, “will help attract more visitors from China.”

Han Li can be reached at han@sfstandard.com