Thursday, July 8, 2010

San Francisco Resets and Rebuilds

San Francisco is one of the world's top tourism draws, but the city and surrounding Bay Area seem as eager as any Nowheresville to launch new projects and become even more popular.

That much became clear the other day when the nonprofit San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau hosted its 100th annual luncheon, attracting nearly 1,000 travel-biz types to Moscone West, in the downtown convention center. Once they squeezed inside, the luncheon guests swilled wine and sipped cocktails - I didn't have any but they looked like martinis to me - this, at mid-day, before heading back to their offices. Woo-hoo! Let it never be said that San Francisco doesn't know how to party.

Beyond the centennial celebratory mood, though, matters were serious, as befits the city's biggest industry. Tourism generates $7.8 billion per year in revenue, according to the SFCVB's numbers-crunchers. Forty-four percent of visitor spending comes from international travelers, drawn to what many of them say is America's most European city. (Are they flattering us? Maybe. But we like to think it's so.) Moreover, the travel industry employs tens of thousands - more than any other business in town, even San Francisco's vaunted high-tech sector. But, as people around the planet have noticed, the world in still in the grip of a deep recession, so being nimble and inventive is crucial now, past successes notwithstanding.

I was surprised to learn that one item on the agenda of the bureau's new Centennial Project is choosing a new name for itself - maybe. I'll leave it to greater marketing minds than mine to decide whether this is necessary. Other cities, such as New York, with its NYC agency, have done this, but 'Convention and Visitors Bureau' has the virtue of telling people exactly what the organization does. Still, San Francisco authorities seem intent on rebranding the city, to keep up with or out in front of competitors. That's the 'resets' of the headline on this post.

"Rebuilds' is of more interest to me and, I suspect, visitors to San Francisco - as well as many of the 7 million people who live in the region. And there is tangible progress on this front, especially when it comes to travel and transportation infrastructure. To wit:

* A long-awaited cruise ship terminal, needed to replace outmoded facilities at a vintage wooden finger pier on San Francisco Bay that once served the old Matson Line ships, is being mooted for completion in 2014. San Francisco is not in the same league as Vancouver or Hong Kong as a cruise stop, but some 250,000 cruise ship customers visit the city annually and local tourism leaders think there is potential for many more.

* A wholly new Transbay transit terminal, to replace a delapidated and depressing facility opened in the 1930s, is on the agenda, too. It is scheduled for completion in 2017, at a cost of $1.81 billion. This will be the hub of the city's bus and tram system, which many visitors rely on to get around town, as do commuters. It may also serve as a terminus point of California's proposed high-speed rail line, which has received state voter endorsement and some needed federal funding. The system could be decades away, but at least a start has been made. At present, with the partial exception of the U.S. Northeast, America's train system - let alone high-speed rail - is a national embarassment. Changing that should be a high priority.

* In the short term, travelers will see a revamped and reopened passenger terminal at San Francisco International Airport, the Bay Area's busiest. This is the former international terminal, closed to passengers since late 2000 when a sparkling new international terminal was opened, and used for storage and offices ever since. The target for reopening - for domestic traffic this time - is spring of next year. Over the past decade, this has been SFO's version of the Arabian peninsula's Empty Quarter. It will be nice to see it humming and busy again, filled with updated facilities for travelers.

The Great Recession is a challenge to everyone, but an invigorated San Francisco is still very much on the travel map, and showing signs of staying there for some time to come.

No comments:

Post a Comment