By Laura Del Rosso

SAN FRANCISCO -- This city's tourism industry is flourishing this year, leading to warnings that travelers who want to stay in a particular hotels during peak periods this fall should plan early and expect higher room rates than last year.

There are longer lines than usual for the cable cars, and streets along Union Square and Fisherman's Wharf are packed with visitors from all over the world. Behind the surge in arrivals is a booming high-tech economy that is drawing more business travelers to San Francisco -- and a steady growth of leisure travelers, both domestic and international.

Hoteliers are enjoying some of the highest occupancies and room rates they have ever seen. "People should plan early and bring full wallets," said David Lewin, director of sales and marketing for the Hyatt Regency, San Francisco. The Hyatt Regency sold out its entire 805-room inventory for 13 nights in July and 16 nights in August.

More sold-out periods are to come, hoteliers said, with September and October peak convention months. From Sept. 29 through Oct. 3, the city will host Seybold Seminars, expected to attract 50,000 people and Oct. 26-30 the American Academy of Opthamology, with an expected 23,000. San Francisco already played host to one major convention this year, the American Bar Association, which drew 25,000 delegates in July and helped boost an already high visitor count.

Corey Limbach, a vice president with the hotel accounting firm Pannell Kerr and Forster, said San Francisco has experienced "several years of gradual build up of hotel rates and occupancies" and, with no new construction of hotels taking place, demand will continue to put pressure on supply. "San Francisco is extremely strong right now," Limbach said. "Occupancies are 4% higher than last year and room rates are 12% higher."

Limbach said that, with the busiest months of September and October yet to come, San Francisco should end the year with a "healthy growth in occupancies and rates 12% to 15% higher." Limbach added, "There are no drops on the horizon."

San Francisco in the 1980s and early 1990s lagged behind hotels in high-priced East Coast cities such as New York, Boston and Washington, D.C., with room rates that have typically been lower than in those cities, Limbach said. The rates are still lower, but are catching up, he said.

However, several new hotels are in the blueprint stage and may be ready for guests in the next five years, providing San Francisco with more hotel inventory and perhaps giving visitors some relief on escalating rates. Starwood Lodging is building a property near Moscone Center and Omni Hotels is in discussion to construct a hotel within an existing Financial District office tower. In addition, Four Seasons is considering becoming part of a mixed-use redevelopment project near Moscone Center, next to the Marriott Hotel. It would be Four Seasons' re-entry into San Francisco after a change of ownership at the Clift Hotel ended its long-time management contract there.

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau said the popularity of the city should not deter prospective visitors. "This year is strong, but there are still plenty of rooms available" for those who do not require to stay in the most popular hotels in the most popular areas, such as Fisherman's Wharf, and who make their arrangements plenty of time in advance, a spokeswoman said.

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