Alcatraz Island welcomes back visitors as virus restrictions ease

One of San Francisco's iconic tourist attractions reopened Monday as coronavirus restrictions ease.

The first group of visitors returned to Alcatraz Island and tourism experts are hopeful that it's the beginning of a trend to welcome people back.

"This is one thing we wanted to do while we were here," said Sarah Burson from Phoenix.

The National Park Service closed Alcatraz for months due to the COVID pandemic. Visitors said their trip wouldn't have been complete without a trip to the island prison.

"We were all sad," said Burson. "Then we were all excited, now we know we get to go inside the cells."

"We're open," said Antonette Sespene from Alcatraz Cruises. "We are open for business and we are so excited."

The first cruises set sail Monday morning. Alcatraz Cruises said there were a few international visitors and some out-of-state guests. But what they want to see is locals exploring the world-class tourist destinations in their own backyard.

"What we're really excited about is to really speak to the locals," Sespene said. "This is a a really interesting time in our history and a visit to Alcatraz, particularly for locals, would be great at this point."

Tourism experts say the Golden Gate Bridge, the cable cars, Pier 39, and Fisherman's Wharf, along with Alcatraz, are among the top draws for visitors.

"Visitors from around the world want to come to San Francisco and experience Alcatraz," said Joe D'Alessandro from SF Travel.

Alcatraz acts like an anchor for nearby businesses.

"They're going to spend time, they're going to spend a whole day going to the shops, maybe going to Pier 39, maybe going to some of the museums down there," said D'Alessandro.

SF Travel is in the process of launching a campaign called "Our Gate is Open" to welcome visitors back to San Francisco. The organization says more attractions will open as vaccine continues to roll out. But the recovery is bound to be slow. 

"We're going to see the return of some leisure travel this summer, there's no question about it," said D'Alessandro. "We've got to get the meetings and conventions back. But, we won't see numbers like we saw in 2019 until 2025 again."