Friday, May 21, 2010

Selling California

You wouldn't think a place as famous as California - one of the planet's most charismatic tourist draws -would need to sell itself. But you'd be wrong, especially in these days of heightened competition and lowered economic expectations.

I recently attended a coffee and pastry morning get-together at San Francisco's Pier 39, a tourist magnet on the city's beautiful northern waterfront. The gathering was held to mark the official opening of a new California Welcome Center, one of 17 outposts around the Golden State where visiting travelers can find brochures, ask questions, pick up maps and get tips from designated staffers that the California Travel and Tourism Commission is pleased to call concierges. The Pier 39 office, which has relocated upstairs to the second level of the big, restored wooden pier with its shops, food eateries, and rowdy resident sea lions - is decidedly bigger than its predecessor. Airy and washed with natural light, it includes a priority mail center for the USPS, several PCs set up for use, even lockers to store luggage while you walk around nearby Fishermans Wharf to see the sights. I'm happy to give it a plug.

Tourism is, as you might guess, big business in California, and in San Francisco, one of the state's most popular lures for travelers. The Golden State saw a staggering 351 million people who "traveled to and through California in 2008'' - the most recent year for which figures are available - according to the CTTC. Most were Californians, many were other Americans, about 13.4 million were international travelers. Together they spent $97.6 billion in 2008. That sounds like a lot, but domestic U.S. visitors actually dropped 1 percent from 2007, while domestic air traffic at the state's airports fell 3.6 percent from 2007.

Thus, the push to raise the state's profile and give travelers a helping hand. The Pier 39 California Welcome Center, marked by a large, easy to see sign on level 2 near the heritage Eagle Cafe, was expanded because it is the second most-visited California Welcome Center in the state, CTTC officials on the scene told me. I can see why. Pier 39 is a must-stop for most first-timers, is family friendly and gives access to many other waterside attractions in San Francisco, such as the Presidio, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge and San Francisco Bay.

Well-regarded though it may be, the city of San Francisco has also seen a recent drop in visitors. Visitor numbers hit 15.4 million in 2009, down 5.8 percent from 2008, according to the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau, which tracks the numbers. Visitors' spending in 2009 was $7.8 billion, down 7.6 percent from 2008, while tourism tax revenue - driven mainly by a city tax on hotel room rates - dropped a precipitous 19.2 percent.

These, I fear, are products of the Great Recession, and visitor numbers won't rebound fully until the recession ends. Cross your fingers, open your wallet as much as you dare and let's hope the recession doesn't develop a double-dip.

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