When London Breed was sworn in as the new mayor of San
Francisco last week, the city's homeless crisis was at the top of her agenda.
It was also top of mind for her constituents, especially those whose fortunes
depend on tourism.
The increasingly visible homeless problem, coupled with an
epidemic of drug use and the resulting blighted streets, are threatening the
city's reputation as one of the most desirable business and leisure
destinations in the country.
Those problems deeply concern the city's tourism industry.
"There's no question that there is an issue," said
Joe D'Alessandro, president and CEO of San Francisco's tourism marketing
organization, San Francisco Travel. "It's a national issue that we're
facing, and ... it continues to be a problem. 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
Current estimates peg the homeless population of San
Francisco at about 7,500, a number that hasn't changed much in the past decade
despite ongoing efforts to combat the crisis. It is also a number that stands
in stark contrast to the city's tech-driven economic boom, which has resulted
in housing shortages and sky-high costs.
To address the problem, the new mayor has proposed, among
other initiatives, creating more affordable housing, eliminating the city's
tent encampments, opening safe-injection facilities so people don't inject
drugs in public and increasing access to the drug naloxone to reduce opioid
Breed's swearing-in followed by just a couple of days news
that a major medical association had decided not to host its annual convention
in San Francisco. D'Alessandro said the association, which asked that its name
not be made public, cited the conditions on the city's streets among its
reasons for not meeting in San Francisco this year.
That concern came as no surprise to Jessica Fricchione,
senior editor for books for the U.K.-based IOP Publishing. After attending the
Biophysical Society's annual meeting at San Francisco's major conference venue,
the Moscone Center, this past February, Fricchione said she had no desire to
return to San Francisco until the city addresses its problems.
"I was so appalled by everything that was happening,"
she said. "Mostly what I saw was straight-up open drug use."
Fricchione said she witnessed several incidents of "hard-core"
drug use, both smoking and injecting, in daylight hours around the convention
center, which is located in San Francisco's SOMA neighborhood, adjacent to the
city's downtown Union Square and Tenderloin areas.
This was the third visit to San Francisco in the past 10
years for Fricchione, who lives in Andover, N.J. But she said she had never
noticed the problems to the degree that she did this year.
Nor is California's homeless problem confined to San
Francisco. Two weeks after the conference there, she visited Los Angeles and
again noticed that the crisis had become very visible.
"This is a problem in a lot of places," she said. "But
in San Francisco, it was so concentrated [right] where the conference was."
Interestingly, the Moscone Center is expected to drive an
increased amount of travel to San Francisco when a major overhaul is completed
"Our growth rate has slowed down in the last two years,"
D'Alessandro said. "And the main reason ... is that we're renovating our
convention center, the Moscone Center, and the main buildings were shut down
for six months last year, and that's the single largest generator of business
into San Francisco."
He reported that for 2019, in anticipation of the grand
reopening of the Moscone Center, San Francisco is seeing more room nights booked
than ever before.
Despite the challenges, the allure of San Francisco as a
tourist destination, rooted in its many landmarks and features like its antique
cable cars, beautiful bay views, Alcatraz and Fisherman's Wharf, continue to
attract investment in tourism infrastructure.
Virgin Hotels San Francisco, the second hotel of that brand
in the U.S., will be opening later this year, and a new Langham Place, Waldorf
Astoria and AC Hotel by Marriott are all in the works for the next one to three
In the Hot Seat
Joe D'Alessandro, president
and CEO of the city's tourism marketing association San Francisco Travel,
talked about how the city plans to tackle homelessness, drug use on the streets and
cleanliness (or lack thereof). Read More
In addition, when it opens next year, the 18,000-seat Chase
Center arena in the city's Mission Bay district will become the home of the NBA
champion Golden State Warriors as well as the city's first major concert venue.
What's more, in 2019, a new Central Subway line is scheduled to open; it will
connect the Mission Bay area, the Moscone Center, Union Square and Chinatown.
Christian Tong, operations manager for Intrepid Urban
Adventures in San Francisco, said the city continues to be attractive to
travelers for its outstanding views, restaurants and activities, but visitors
also typically must confront the city's blights.
"The large homeless population in San Francisco is more
of a mental health and humanitarian issue, although it has affected the tourism
and related industries," Tong said. "Whether a visitor is staying in
Fisherman's Wharf, North Beach or Union Square, they'll most likely run into a
few of the city's homeless people, with the largest concentration in the
San Francisco, which traditionally has ranked among the top
10 most visited cities in the U.S., last year welcomed 25.5 million visitors, a
1.2% increase over the 25.2 million who visited in 2016. Even so, that increase
represented a slowing in growth from the 2% to 4.8% gains that were made in the
prior three years.
In addition, the city saw a very slight drop in total
overnight visitors in 2017, to 10.3 million from 10.4 million in 2016.
Those are the kinds of early warning signs San Francisco
Travel hopes will spur the city into addressing its challenges head on.
The first step, D'Alessandro said, is simply owning up to
"I think that it's important for all of us to be honest
and transparent when we talk about our destinations," he said. "We
were pretty bold in coming out months ago and saying we have an issue on the
streets. Travel and tourism is San Francisco's leading industry, and it has
been for a long time, and we want to make sure it stays healthy and continues
"So we took that bold stance of going public with it
because we wanted to make sure that during the election year, when we had
candidates running for mayor, that they saw the reality of the importance of
travel and tourism to San Francisco and why we needed to take steps to make it