San Francisco is impossibly picturesque, with its steep streets, superlative vistas and candy-coloured houses (the city's famous "Painted Ladies"). Located in Northern California, San Fran is one of the USA's most progressive cities. It was ahead of the curve in its response to coronavirus, too, declaring a state of emergency at the end of February. We caught up with Hubertus Funke, Executive Vice President & Chief Tourism Officer at the San Francisco Travel Association, to find out more about the city's experience of Covid-19, and its plans for the future.
Q: San Francisco was the first city to declare a state of emergency at the end of February. Did the early and decisive action pay off? What has San Francisco’s experience of Covid-19 been like?
A: Thanks to Mayor Breed’s early action, San Francisco fared way better than the rest of the United States. San Francisco was one of the first cities to go into lockdown in early March. Social distancing and wearing face coverings are still mandatory everywhere in public, and this policy is being strictly enforced. Currently, San Francisco stands at 10,120 cases and 88 deaths, compared to almost 750,000 cases and more than 14,000 deaths in California. The US has a total of more than 6.3 million infections and 191,000 deaths.
Q: Have there been some positive stories emerging from San Francisco during these difficult times?
A: Who would have thought there would be any positive and hopeful stories emerging over the past few months, but as a matter of fact there have been quite a few! MMGY and HSMAI's "Buy One, Give One" promotion is one example. This programme has been created to generate immediate revenue for hotels, while simultaneously providing a much deserved “thank you” to healthcare workers who have been tirelessly working on the front lines. Also, while we are fortunate to have a very strong and robust tourism industry here in San Francisco, it does not come as a surprise that this sector has been hit incredibly hard by this crisis. As so many businesses were forced to close during lockdown, countless hospitality workers lost their jobs. These workers are the unsung heroes and, frankly, the lifeblood of San Francisco’s tourism industry. To honour our hospitality workers, many major San Francisco landmarks and locations such as City Hall, Oracle Park, Coit Tower and many others, illuminated themselves in purple during the first few weeks of the lockdown (Purple is the official colour of hospitality). It was a beautiful sign of solidarity and testament to how the city really came together, and we were proud that many other cities followed our lead.
The great new outdoor dining spaces that many restaurants have created to provide socially distant outdoor dining options are another example of a positive and creative new development in the city.
Ahead of Memorial Day weekend in May, which traditionally kicks off summer and usually draws large crowds into the outdoors, San Francisco was the first city in California to paint white circles across many of our parks to promote social distancing. This concept went viral and was subsequently adopted by many other communities in the state and around the world. Since then, the circles were changed into hearts as part of a #HeartYourParks campaign to support local parks.
Q: What does San Francisco’s road to recovery look like? What are the city’s reopening plans?
A: The City of San Francisco puts health and safety first. That is why our road to recovery is slower than others, but also safer. The City now has ambitious goals for getting some of our major attractions and hotels open as early as mid-September. Before this crisis, international tourism accounted for more than 60% of visitor spending, and we do not expect to get back to 2019 levels until 2024 or even 2025. So, yes, it is going to be a challenging recovery. In the initial phase, we are going to focus on hyper-local and regional travel, but we also look forward to welcoming our visitors from around the world back to San Francisco!
Q: The city recently launched its Safe Travel Pledge for tourists. Could you explain a bit more about this initiative? What new safety measures can travellers to San Francisco expect?
A: We came up with this initiative when we started thinking about what travel in the “new normal” will look like, and what we all need to do to keep ourselves, our fellow citizens and our visitors safe. As we are slowly preparing to welcome visitors back to San Francisco, we want everybody to know that San Franciscans are doing their part to keep the city safe and healthy, and also provide all of our visitors with the confidence that they can have a safe experience here. At the same time, we wanted to remind people not only of what to expect when they visit our city, but also what is expected of them. So, the Safe Travel Pledge is a commitment for everyone to do their part and travel responsibly. More than 700 people have already signed within a matter of a few weeks, and we encourage you to join them! As mentioned before, face coverings and physical distancing is not just recommended in San Francisco, it is required. In addition, San Francisco has recently developed by far the most stringent cleaning and safety protocols in the country for hotels. The rest of our business community is working closely with the San Francisco Department of Public Health to strengthen cleaning and safety standards, while still providing a joyful and memorable experience. So, our goal is that the entire visitor experience is a safe one.
Q: Flights are increasing between the UK and San Francisco International Airport (SFO), which is the first US airport to launch Rapid Covid testing. What does this involve and how will it keep travellers and San Francisco residents safe?
A: While the rapid Covid testing at SFO is currently for airport employees only, it is an important step to keep both airport employees and travellers safe. In addition, SFO has implemented a series of new and enhanced cleaning and social distancing protocols under their new Travel Well programme in order to provide the safest experience for travellers. The airport website, infographics and signage throughout the airport ensure that travellers know what to expect and what is expected of them.
Q: What do you expect travel to San Francisco to look like for the rest of this year and into 2021?
A: For the remainder of 2020 and beginning of 2021, the focus will be on regional travel with 40 million people living within driving distance. We are also working with other cities in California, like Los Angeles and San Diego that are usually competitors, with northern California promoting southern California and vice versa. One of our advantages is that the fall months are among the most beautiful in San Francisco, and we are hoping that people will be able to take advantage of that.
Q: What are some of the hidden gems in the city that you would recommend travellers check out?
A: San Francisco is an outdoor haven, especially for those seeking open spaces. In addition to man-made spectacles like the Golden Gate Bridge, its miles of pristine shoreline, old growth coastal redwood trees right in the heart of the city, botanical gardens, the brand new Salesforce Park right in the middle of the financial district, and nearby wilderness areas all add to San Francisco’s natural wonders. One of my personal favourites is the Presidio, an amazing park at the northern tip of the San Francisco peninsula. It has forested areas, miles of hiking and biking trails, a golf course, scenic overlooks and even beaches. It also boasts some incredibly good restaurants, some of which are currently open for outdoor dining - a true escape from the urban hustle and bustle! Another great way to explore the green spaces and hidden gems of San Francisco is via the Crosstown Trail that offers you the chance to bike, hike and run along a 17-mile route that crosses diagonally through the city, including neighbourhoods, parks and cultural sites that make San Francisco such a special place. One of my favourite areas along the way is a small neighbourhood called Little Hollywood, a name given because of the architectural style of the first houses built here back in the late 1920s and early 1930s, many of them resembling homes in the Hollywood Hills. Legend has it that famed silver screen legend Mae West once owned a getaway home here to escape the “real” Hollywood.
Q: Are there some positives we can take forwards from our experience of coronavirus into the future?
A: I think this pandemic has shown us, in very painful ways, how incredibly fragile and vulnerable we are as people and as a society. Virtually, many aspects of our way of life and conveniences we have grown so accustomed to, have crumbled away. But it has also brought out some of the best in humankind. I just hope we can emerge from this a little kinder, a little more responsible and thoughtful, and never forget that, at the end of the day, we are in all of this together.
Top image: View of the Golden Gate bridge from the top of Twin Peaks mountain, the highest place in San Francisco © Suzette Leg Anthony/Shutterstock