San Francisco is one of the world's favorite tourist towns - and the city has the numbers to go with it. A community of 750,000, it draws about 20 times that number of visitors every year, generating some $8 billion a year in visitors' spending. Travel and tourism is the city by the bay's number one business by revenue.
Players in the tourism biz get together at an annual luncheon organized by the San Francisco Travel Association (www.onlyinsanfrancisco.com) to break out the latest stats, give out awards, watch jazzy videos and listen to speakers - all smartly and professionally scripted and choreographed. This year's luncheon, the 101st, had the throbbing spirit of a pep rally, complete with a cheering, hundreds-strong audience in Moscone Convention Center, a booming soundtrack, vibrant graphics and can-do message.
And why not? 2010 was a good year for the tourism biz in San Francisco. International visitors - who comprise one-third of arrivals - stayed strong. Overall visitors were up 3.1 percent to 15.92 million from 2009. The city got a shot of adrenaline from the 2010 World Series champion San Francisco Giants, who won their first Major League Baseball crown since relocating from New York in 1958.
Accordingly, San Francisco - which competes with the Big Apple, Las Vegas, Orlando, San Diego and Los Angeles for convention, meeting and leisure tourism dollars - is trying to build on the momentum. This year, the city hosted International Pow Wow, the big annual travel show produced by the U.S. Travel Association, getting another shot of publicity from 400 international journalists who attended the event and toured San Francisco and the greater Bay Area. Also this year, San Francisco International Airport opened a long-closed, beautifully renovated terminal 2; I've flown several times out of the 'new' old terminal and it's a beauty. In May, SFO's arrivals jumped 5 percent over May 2009, the busiest May ever for one of the nation's leading airports.
If you're planning a visit in the next year or two, San Francisco will have some new offerings to go with its classic line-up of restaurants, cable cars climbing halfway to the stars, hills with panoramic views, street characters and superb weather. The city is spending $56 million to upgrade Moscone Center, a job expected to be finished in 2012. In 2013, SF will host the lucrative America's Cup sailboat competition. A long-promised new cruise ship terminal is, well, supposedly approaching, somewhere on the horizon.
All told, it's taken a decade to get back to the numbers the city enjoyed prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S. and the unholy trifecta of SARS, avian flu and recession. In tourism, the Great Recession - reflecting the world's wider economic climate - appears to be waning, if at a painfully slow and uncertain pace.
Still, we'll call the glass half-full.
So - in the words of an old song, "If you're going to San Francisco, wear some flowers in your hair/You're going to meet some gentle people there.'' And every other kind.