San Francisco Looks to Indian Visitors to Reverse Sluggish Tourism Recovery

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Skift Take

For San Francisco, India seems to be the new China.

San Francisco has found promising value in the India travel market as the city’s recovery in international visitors remains sluggish due to China’s slow return.

Indian traveler spending in San Francisco has surpassed its 2019 level, reaching more than $557 million. “India is becoming a really significant market for San Francisco,” said San Francisco Travel CEO Joe D’Alessandro. About 62 percent of all visitor spending in San Francisco comes from foreign visitors.

U.S. West Coast cities like San Francisco have had a slower travel recovery compared to major East Coast tourism cities like New York City due to greater dependence on the Asian travel market, which was slower to reopen, said Peter van Berkel, Chairman of the Inbound International Travel Association and President of Travalco. 

China, San Francisco’s top source market, is still far off from 2019 levels. “That’s hitting San Francisco particularly hard,” said D’Alessandro.  A full recovery isn’t coming for San Francisco until 2025, he said. Occupancy levels for the year will be around 70 percent, down from around 80 percent in 2019.

U.S. tourism official forecasts are pessimistic about the Chinese market. Chinese travel into the U.S. isn’t forecast to be fully back to its 2019 pre-pandemic level of 2.8 million until 2026, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office.

India, on the other hand, will be at around 100 percent of its pre-pandemic level of 1.5 million to the U.S. this year and continue to grow annually, officials believe.

Before the pandemic, India was one of San Francisco’s fastest growing source markets. “We believe that the market has great potential to continue to grow long term in the future,” said D’alessandro. The confidence in India reinforces a 2023 Skift megatrend that it is the new China. 

Airlines are investing in routes between the country and the Golden City. Air India has been expanding non-stop air service to Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore.

Travel between India and the U.S. has been accelerating. Over 75,000 tickets to and from India were sold from the U.S. in 2022, up 432 percent year over year, according to Trevolution Group, which focuses on agency sales of airline tickets and travel services.

San Francisco’s tourism agency is confident it can take a share of this growing demand. The Bay Area has the one of the largest Indian-American populations in the U.S. and there’s a lot of Indian tech professionals traveling back and forth, said D’Alessandro.

A major obstacle to the growth of the India market is the long wait time for an interview for a first-time visitor, which now exceeds 300 days. A 2023 Skift megatrend reported that visa backlogs will stifle international travel to the U.S.

D’Alessandro noted there’s been a 50 percent drop in wait times in India in the last month. This has provided “some pressure relief,” but more still needs to be done.

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