After reports last week that a medical association decided not to host its annual convention in San Francisco due to the city's homeless crisis, Travel Weekly's Michelle Baran spoke with Joe D'Alessandro, president and CEO of the city's tourism marketing association San Francisco Travel, about how the city plans to tackle homelessness, drug use on the streets and cleanliness (or lack thereof), all of which have threatened to compromise San Francisco's robust tourism industry.

Q: Last week, news emerged that a major medical association decided to pull its annual convention from San Francisco. Why did they decide to do so?

A: For clarification, they didn't actually pull or cancel the convention. We were just one of their finalist cities, and they chose to go somewhere else. And they actually have two upcoming years that they're already booked in San Francisco. The group itself does not want to release their name, so I want to respect that. But when they gave us their reasons for choosing another city, their main issues were cost, that it was expensive in San Francisco, and also they said that the condition of the streets was not what they had hoped to see. And we understand that we do have an issue on our streets in San Francisco with a variety of different things -- with the increasing number of homeless people that you see physically, which is not just a San Francisco problem, it's a problem that most large American cities, especially on the West Coast, are facing. And it's an issue that we're trying to work on. We feel that we'll see some substantial changes in the near future.

Q: In a CBS report earlier this year, you stated that the most common negative tourists cite about San Francisco is the condition of the city's streets: aggressive panhandling, encampments and dirt and trash. How much is that perception impacting San Francisco as a destination? 

A: We're concerned about any sort of negative perception and how it impacts our brand, how it impacts the desirability to visit San Francisco. But so far, we haven't seen any quantifiable impact. Our occupancy is at an all-time high. The number of visitors to San Francisco has never been this high. So the numbers are showing that people still love to come to San Francisco. When we do our visitor surveys, which we do on a regular basis, 94% of all visitors to San Francisco say that they want to return, which we believe is one of the highest satisfaction rates in the industry. All that being said, we don't want any sort of negative impression of San Francisco being out there. So we are working quite aggressively with the city and with the private sector to be creative in problem solving. 

Q: How big is San Francisco's homeless problem?

A: The numbers in San Francisco are about 7,000 homeless. And that is pretty much the way it's been for the last 20 years or so. The economy is so strong. It's kind of the envy of the world. And it's bringing a lot of people in for jobs, but it's also pushing people out who may not have the same opportunity and may not have the same income to live in San Francisco. So that is a big concern. That's why the need to find housing for people has become such a priority for us. 

Q: Are you seeing any impact on inbound international travel due to Trump administration policies that might be viewed by some as unwelcoming? 

A: Anytime people around the world have some concern about whether they should take a trip to the United States, it is a concern for us. It's a concern for the entire country. We want America to be the most desirable place to visit in the world. And we have been, for a very long time, to lots of people in the world, and we don't want that damaged. So our messaging to potential visitors is that San Francisco has always been welcoming.

 

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