San Francisco tourism bounces back as international visitors increase

At the height of summer in the city, three years post-pandemic, tourists are flocking back to San Francisco

Many, including small businesses, are noticing an increased number of international visitors.

The San Francisco Traveler Association reports leisure travel is expected to continue its steady recovery this year. Overall visitation to the city is forecast to reach 23.9 million in 2023. 

At the Powell Street cable car turn-around at Market Street, Sam, a 20-year veteran cable car operator, says "tourism is picking back up in San Francisco."

"A lot of Europeans, from Italy, Denmark. They’re from everywhere," he added. 

Walking next to the long, winding line of backpack-toting tourists, KTVU overheard multiple languages mixed in with the sound of music played by an elderly man on an electric keyboard set up next to the cable car queue, with a tip jar ready for gratuities. 

"Last weekend was busy, the weekend before that too," Sam, the cable car operator, said in his yellow and orange vest atop the steps of his cable car. "Even all week, starting like Tuesday when I came back to work, there’s a line out here."

Visitors in the Bay Area for Taylor Swift’s shows Friday and Saturday night at Levi’s Stadium were taking in the city sights. 

Kirsten Lankaster and her nieces from Alberta, Canada came to San Francisco this weekend. 

"We’ve been planning this trip since November," said Lankaster. "We’re going to ride a cable car, visit Haight-Ashbury, Fisherman’s Wharf, we’re going to a baseball game tonight, so everything." 


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They’ll spend five days in the city, according to Lankaster, and shopping is high on the agenda.

"We went to all the department stores, we walked around Union Square, and we heard there’s some boutique shopping in Haight-Ashbury, so we’re headed there next," said Lankaster.

A Pier 39 spokesperson reports restaurants and shops are seeing 95% of visitors compared to 2019.

Outdoor diners took to tables to enjoy sourdough bread chowder bowls and cocktails. 

Blazing Saddles bike rental owner Jeff Sears says his business depends on tourists, and lately he’s seen an uptick of those from European countries as well as South America and Asia. 

"Since 2019 domestic visitors were about 80% of our business, but now, that has flipped," Sears said. "International tourism seems to be about 80% and domestic is more like 20%." 

He laments the negative stories in the national media about San Francisco’s headlining crime and homelessness, but shares, "We're glad we have international visitors, but it would be really nice to have more domestic travelers."

As for next year, the SF Travel Association says half a million hotel nights are already booked, with 21 confirmed events at the Moscone Convention Center.

As the economy picks up and travelers pursue passport stamps, it’s expected to help San Francisco continue its reign as one of the most visited cities in the United States. 

"It’s nice to be loved, isn’t it?" Sam, the cable car operator added.

Martin Holeton contributed to this report. 

Alice Wertz is a freelance reporter for @KTVU. She can be reached at or Instagram: @WayIseesIt Twitter@AlicesTake