This week, Mayor London Breed is jet setting across Europe on an all-expenses-paid trip with one goal: Bring European travelers to San Francisco.
Footing the bill is San Francisco International Airport, who’s paying for Breed, her staff, and various leaders at SFO and SF Travel, the city’s main tourism lobby, to tour several European cities. During the 10-day, $25,000 tour, Breed will visit London, Brussels, Frankfurt and Paris, meet with airlines, airport and local leaders to pitch San Francisco as a prime destination and gateway to California. The airport is paying for the trip because it—and the city—have a lot to gain from full flights as they try to regain lost tourism revenue.
Why is Breed going to Europe?
San Francisco’s travel recovery is lagging behind other major cities—and a lack of international travelers is partly to blame.
International travelers account for about 25% of traffic at San Francisco International Airport, said Doug Yakel, SFO’s public information officer. And with many parts of Asia still closed off or implementing new restrictions due to Covid-19, European travelers were the natural target to make up the gap. He said the mayor’s focus during the trip will be meeting with the right people at the right airlines to encourage them to increase the frequency of flights—or add new ones—to and from the city. She will also work to allay any concerns about safety in San Francisco, also making appearances in local European press.
“The goal here is to take advantage of those relaxed restrictions in Europe and provide the opportunity for more airline service from Europe to SFO this summer and later this year,” Yakel said.
Just how important is international travel?
The latest numbers from SF Travel show that international visitors were down 84% in 2021, and haven’t bounced back amid ever-changing Covid restrictions over the past year. International visitors are also the most valuable visitors, paying higher fares and spending more money in the city.
“You can’t underscore how important international activity is to SFO,” Yakel said.
The airport’s $1 billion annual budget has taken a huge hit from the lack of international travel, Yakel said.
Yakel said that in addition to higher fares for international flights, people traveling from abroad spend more time and money at the airport: A report from the airport found that food and merchandise sales in its international terminal were down around 65% in 2021 compared to 2019.
As a result, airport vendors catering to international tourists are struggling: Roughly 20% of airport stores are closed, nearly all located in the international terminal.
How has the airport weathered pandemic blows?
The loss of tourists has seriously damaged the airport’s bottom line, forcing it to postpone $2.5 billion in construction projects, including a planned update to its Terminal 3, Yakel said. The airport is prepared to continue deferments if necessary, but is looking for any way to make up the deficit.
Overseen by the Airport Commission, SFO is considered an “enterprise department” of the city and county of San Francisco, meaning the agency generates its own revenue to fund its operations, in addition to receiving some federal grant money. In a typical pre-pandemic year, the airport would contribute roughly $45 million to the city in the form of an annual service payment, in addition to generating billions in economic activity. But much of that evaporated during COVID, and the airport received $254 million in federal CARES Act funding in addition to other efforts to shore up its budget.
So what’s the plan?
With much of Asia still cut off due to pandemic restrictions, SFO is eyeing Europe as its next market of customers. High rates of vaccination in much of Europe has allowed countries to reduce restrictions for those who have had the shot, incentivising more travel both to and from the continent. The airport hopes that promoting San Francisco can help it catch up with other airports that have seen a faster recovery of traffic. Right now, much of SFO’s traffic is concentrated on leisure destinations like Mexico, but that’s not enough to get to a full pre-pandemic schedule, Yakel said.
“[International travel is] a much larger piece of our overall picture,” Yakel said. “When we look at where our best opportunity is to recover international traffic in the short term, Europe is the answer.”
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