SAN FRANCISCO - Flights coming in to San Francisco International Airport brought foreign visitors to the Bay Area for the first time in 20 months after the United States' ban on international travelers from 33 countries was lifted Monday. That allowed families, coworkers, and friends to reunite after long separations due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Travelers from Brazil, Mexico, Canada, China, India and 28 European countries now are allowed to enter the U.S. if they have proof of full immunization by one of the COVID vaccines approved by the World Health Organization, and in some cases a negative COVID test.
At SFO in the arrivals lobby, families and friends waited eagerly.
Coralie Ruegger flew in from New York to San Francisco to meet her parents. She set up heart-shaped balloons and a bottle of wine with three wine glasses on her luggage. She was in tears, thinking of her parents coming from France after three years apart.
"It was a pandemic and two surgeries by myself so I'm really glad they're coming," said Ruegger.
There were many hugs and tears. Each person waiting had a story.
Six year-old Ryaan Sinno of Pleasant Hill and his father were waiting for a very special person.
"My grandma," said Ryaan, adding that a lot has changed since his grandmother saw them at the start of the pandemic nearly two years ago. Ryaan says his baby brother has grown up.
"He's wearing four year old clothes and he's nearly three feet," said Ryaan, gesturing with his arms.
At SFO the line for passengers to clear customs and immigration was packed with the surge of people.
"We had to show vaccination, show COVID test, passport," said Matthew Rose, a San Diego who was caught in the crowd coming from Frankfurt.
Many major airlines said they plan to add new flights to handle pent-up demand. That is welcome news to the San Francisco hospitality industry.
"International travel makes up 2/3rds of the tourism business we have in San Francisco. So what it means for hotels is more people staying in hotels," said Kevin Carroll, President & CEO of the San Francisco Hotel Council.
Carroll says San Francisco hotel occupancy rates are around 30% right now, compared to 80% this time of year before the pandemic, but hotels already are seeing a spike in business.
"They're starting to see more inquiries from tour groups and booking from tour groups," said Carroll, adding that they anticipate people will be able to find good room rates and availability through the holidays.
For companies it means a return of international business travelers too.
Paul Mugnier of San Francisco works for Graham's Port and was waiting for a co-worker.
"My colleague is at the winery in Portugal and he has not been able to travel to the United States ever since the travel ban fell in place," said Mugnier, "It's really, really nice to be able to be with colleagues again in person."
For Coralie Ruegger and so many others, just being together in person again is a precious gift. When her parents finally emerged, they all were in tears, so happy to see each other at last.
She popped open the cork on the bottle of wine and in the middle of the SFO arrivals lobby they raised their glasses in celebration.
It was a moment that many might have taken for granted before the pandemic, but now just being with people you love the most, is something definitely worth toasting.
SFO spokesman Doug Yakel says another thing to celebrate is the return of direct flights from Paris, Dublin, and other cities to SFO. Yakel says there are also two new airlines Flair and Air Transat that plan to launch service next year from Canada.
Jana Katsuyama is a reporter for KTVU. Email Jana at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on Twitter @JanaKTVU or Facebook @NewsJana or ktvu.com.