A visitor’s world: Tourism in the Bay Area
May 23, 2017
The appeal of Bay Area culture and aesthetic draws in an estimated 25 million tourists annually, making it one of the top travel destinations in California. Oftentimes tourists carry a negative connotation to locals, and they are categorized as a financially necessary nuisance, generating over 200,000 jobs in the Bay Area. We found, however, that Bay Area residents are unusually grateful for the tourism in their region.
A Local’s Perspective
For Jack Birmingham, tourism is everywhere. Living in North Beach, he is surrounded by some of San Francisco’s top attractions, and they are impossible to escape from. Every day is filled with sightseeing. However, the type of sightseeing that Birmingham practices differs slightly from what is advertised in Lonely Planet guidebooks. He is an avid people watcher, and he loves to observe tourists discover the place where he grew up. “A lot of times I’ll give tourists little tips on like where they should go to lunch or what they should do with their kids for fun. I really appreciate the fact that so many people come here… it’s great for the city because it brings in a lot of tax revenue that we can spend on other things.”
While he may be an elder statesman of sorts to the newest guests in San Francisco, Birmingham’s own tourism resumé is a bit questionable. He admitted to me that he’s never even been to Alcatraz because he was sick on the day his fourth-grade class visited the iconic prison. Birmingham has also never made the walk across the Golden Gate Bridge, as he’s “always wanted to, [but] never gotten around to it.” Even though there are a few gaps in his experiential knowledge of the city, Birmingham has also done his fair share of shamelessly touristy activities, as he admits to me that “from kindergarten through eighth grade my friend Lucas and I took a cable car to school every day.”
Although he is certainly appreciative of tourism, Birmingham concedes that it can also be a nuisance. On his way home from school, he often drives down the famous Lombard Street, which can be quite perilous: “There’s always a bunch of people standing in the middle of the street. You know, 50 or 60 people aimlessly taking pictures is kind of a safety hazard.” Whether it is a scourge on efficient travel or a boost to the local economy, Birmingham knows that tourism is an unremitting fact of life because of where he lives. He assures me, however, that there’s “no other place I would have wanted to grow up.”
Chad Kahiaina: Four Seasons of Tourism
The Bay Area is one of the most frequented travel destinations in the US, being home to an array of renowned scenic attractions, restaurants and tourist activities. Mass tourism in the Bay Area has led to a huge job market, where an estimated 200,000 residents work in tourism-related jobs. Thirty-two-year-old Chad Kahiaina falls amongst this surplus of workers, being employed as a receptionist at the Four Seasons hotel in San Francisco for the past seven years. With approximately 25 million tourists visiting the Bay Area annually, Kahiaina has tourism to thank for his line of work: “If it weren’t for tourism, I wouldn’t have a job… I think tourism is necessary for any city, it creates productivity that keeps everyone employed, especially when you work in a hospitality industry.” Despite the role that tourism plays in Kahiana’s daily life, he claims that “besides when I’m at work, I don’t really notice it. They [tourists] usually just blend into the crowd for me, but maybe that’s because I don’t go to many touristy places.” But, what Kahiana doesn’t recognize is that his job at the Four Seasons puts him a mere ten minutes from Fisherman’s Wharf, the Embarcadero and AT&T Park, three of San Francisco’s most tourist filled hubs. Although he may not realize it, by living in San Francisco Khaiana is immersed in a visitor’s world. For Khaniana however, he has the privilege of calling this alluring city home: “I love the Bay Area… as of right now, I can’t imagine living anywhere else.”
Tourist turns local
Not far from the Four Season’s hotel resides Natasha Azancot, a mother of three teenage girls who has been a resident of the San Francisco area for over 15 years. Living atop Potrero hill, Azancot has the benefit of experiencing the genuine culture of San Francisco: “I don’t live in a particularly touristy part of the city, which is nice because I feel like I have that authentic San Francisco feeling where I live.” Despite the picturesque view her home overlooks, Azancot’s particular neighborhood remains fairly isolated from the tourism scene in comparison to many San Francisco hotspots. However, like many San Francisco natives, tourism plays a driving role in Azancot’s financial situation: “My husband owns Café Bastille… I think our family’s restaurant gets a lot more customers simply because people come to San Francisco to eat high-quality food.” Azancot expressed solely gratitude for tourists in the Bay Area. Her positive credit to tourism was unexpected because often times, locals are reported to be inhospitable and general opposed to tourists. Her compassionate appreciation for San Francisco’s visitors could be in light of her ability to empathize with Bay Area tourists: “I didn’t grow up here… I was born and raised in Holland, that’s where my accent is from… I was a tourist once here myself… so I guess I can relate to what it’s like in a way.” Azancot’s ability to identify with the foreign perspective could be what prompts her thankful spirit towards tourists.
The Industry in Marin County
Mark Essman knows Marin like the back of his hand. He has been working in the tourism industry for almost 30 years, and he loves helping people enjoy their visit to Marin.
Essman describes Marin as “the little dog in the big pound” compared to the greater Bay Area. Nestled in between two much larger tourist destinations (San Francisco and Wine Country), Marin has always been the recipient of a lot of inadvertent visitation. Travelers in San Francisco often come to Marin to take refuge from the ruthless fog of the city, and guests in Napa frequently stopover when they grow tired of vineyard tours and wine tastings. Essman has long championed for the Marin Convention and Visitors Bureau to embrace such an approach: “We can’t compete with the big guys so what we do is we try to enhance the visitor’s stay. If they’re here for 3 or 4 days down in San Francisco or up in the wine country we try to get them here for one day.” After the initial visitation, Essman relies on the natural beauty of Marin to lure tourists into coming back. Places like Muir Woods, Point Reyes, and the Headlands (the three most visited sites in Marin, according to Essman) are very effective in doing this. Essman tells me that about 45% of visitors who come here annually are return business, an extremely impressive figure in the world of tourism.
While San Francisco and Wine Country may get most of the attention, Marin has successfully carved out their tourism niche, and Essman is committed to growing the industry in the county while still maintaining its natural beauty.
Uber cool driver Garick Grant
After a shivering six-minute wait in the city’s crisp, unforgiving weather, my Uber arrived. My driver, Garick Grant, is a resident of the East Bay and has been a Bay Area resident for a decade now. Grant, just like Natasha Azancot and Chad Kahiaina relies on tourism for his occupation. Being a driver for uber as his primary job, Grant requires the influx of tourist in the San Francisco/ Bay Area to sustain his standard of living: “Ya, I mean I encounter tourists almost everytime I drive in the city… and I’m basically always driving in the city, that’s where the money is best.” Though Grant values tourism for different reasons than Azancot and Kahiaina: “Driving around tourists is nice for me, I get to go to these beautiful parts of the city that I would never visit on my own time.” By chauffeuring tourists, Grant, in a sense, gets to become a tourist himself, visiting and exploring new parts of a grand and captivating San Francisco. On the other hand, Grant did express a slight complaint which one would expect of city uber drivers, mentioning that “it can be frustrating when I [he] pick[s] up a tourist and they have no idea where they are going, but [his] job is all about patience.” However, this light-hearted critique does not outweigh the vast amount of approval and tribute Grant preached towards tourism: “I have two kids at home… picking up and driving around tourists is one of those little things that is keeping my life together.”
A Pleasant Visit
Sofia Muller wishes she could stay for a bit longer. Muller is from Berlin, Germany, and she came to the Bay Area to visit her brother working in Silicon Valley. Her brother showed her all around Palo Alto before they traveled north to San Francisco, and she has already hit most of the main attractions: “I’ve visited Haight-Ashbury street, Fisherman’s Wharf, the Japanese Tea Garden, the Palace of Fine Arts… and the Presidio.” Unfortunately, her brother had to return to work unexpectedly, so Muller was left to experience the rest of her trip on her own. After consulting a variety of travel blogs, Muller decided to take the ferry to Marin County. This is an increasingly popular phenomenon, as more and more people are now turning to the internet for their travel advice.
Muller was happy to share her travel story with me, perhaps because of the kindness that Bay Area locals had shown her: “Everyone I have met here has been very nice and welcoming towards me… I have asked a lot of people questions about what places I should see and also about food and everyone has been happy to answer my questions.” Although she only has one day left before she has to leave, Muller is keen on experiencing as much of the Bay Area as she can. She is still hoping to go to the Marin Headlands and Alcatraz, and most of all, she reveals, she is “very much hoping to return here in the future.”
The Appeal of San Francisco
Joanna Zhang has no qualms with being a tourist. She sees no problem with enjoying all that San Francisco has to offer, and her favorite spots are Fisherman’s Wharf, the Ferry Building, and Union Square. Even after going to school in the Bay Area for two years (she’s currently a boarding student at San Domenico in San Anselmo), nothing excites her more than a day trip into the city. But what is it exactly that draws Zhang to consistently revisit these attractions? “The view, and shopping, of course,” she admits. Zhang is not alone in feeling the shopping allure of San Francisco, as the Mercury News reported that travelers spent $34.5 billion in the Bay Area in 2016. Zhang’s interpretation of this was simply that “tourists are not like travelers; we are pretty shallow.”
Zhang never feels lost in the crowd, even among the thousands of tourists that visit San Francisco daily. Hailing from the 3.5-million-strong city of Xiamen, China, she is used to long lines and hordes of visitors. What has been a pleasant surprise to her, however, is the affordability of a lot of Bay Area attractions: “Lots of touristy places are free of entrance tickets, which is nice. For example, if they were in China, the mountains for viewing Golden Gate [Marin Headlands] would for sure cost at least ten dollars to visit.” Another pleasant surprise for Zhang has been the attitude of San Francisco locals: “Everyone, even in Union Square, is kind because you are spending money.” Still enchanted with all that San Francisco has to offer, Zhang is devoted to keeping on visiting. And unless the beautiful views, plentiful shopping, and welcoming locals run out, it doesn’t look like she’ll stop anytime soon.
Tourism reach limited in suburbs
For Bay Area citizens like Tina Gibson, the topic of tourism is quite unfamiliar. Being occupied as a small store retailer and living in the suburbs in San Rafael, Gibson manages to disconnect from the seemingly unavoidable realm of tourism. The disadvantage is that Gibson is admittedly uninformed about the topic of tourism, despite its everlasting role in the Bay. She confidently states that “it [tourism] drives a lot of good business in,” but later concedes, “I don’t really think about tourism unless I’m driving over the bridge or actual see tourists, but I rarely see them.” Gibson’s assumption that she ‘never sees’ tourists is a common misconception for the inhabitants of the Bay. The reality is that tourists can be found occupying nearly any district in the Bay Area. However, many people attach a foreign image to tourists, Gibson herself asserting that, “I would guess that most tourists come from Asian countries” when the the fact is that “in-state travelers account for 43 percent of San Francisco’s visitors.” This entails that a near majority of San Francisco tourists come from California itself, rather than international countries. Although seemingly insignificant, tourism has ingrained itself as an indispensable piece of Bay Area culture and society, thus making accuracy and understanding towards the topic extremely relevant for all members of the Bay.
All Around the World
Henrick Hervall has seen, and done, it all. Born and raised in Sweden, Hervall officially became a travel agent at the young age of 23 when he purchased Skytours San Francisco. He is now the President of Redwood Skytours, a name that grew out of his incorporation of Redwood Travel Advisers. Hervall has been to more than 120 countries, and he counts Mongolia, Moldova, and Zimbabwe as his personal favorites to visit. With an encyclopedic knowledge of travel around the world, Hervall is able to dispense a multitude of advice to his customers. His global experience also gives him a rare sense of perspective on the beauty of the Bay Area: “San Francisco is high on my list compared to other cities/countries I have been to…all of us who live here are very lucky.” He cites “the restaurants covering so many cultures, Alcatraz, the Golden Gate bridge, and the [proximity to] wine country and Lake Tahoe” as reasons that the Bay Area is so special. Clearly, many people feel the same way as Hervall, as San Francisco Travel reported that there were 18.9 million leisure visitors to the city in 2015.
As a substantial contributor to the tourism industry worldwide, Hervall appreciates San Francisco’s exceptional infrastructure for tourism. He calls it a “very unique American city,” and he is especially fond of its public transit system and the fact there are ferries that run across the bay. After 36 years of being a travel agent and over 120 countries visited, Hervall still cherishes the area in which he lives. He ranks the Bay Area as his “5th or 6th” favorite travel destination worldwide, which, with all things considered, is a great compliment to the humble, 9-county slice of California that is our shared home.
Going beyond Berkeley
Built in 1914, Sather Tower stands in the center of the UC Berkeley campus, holding the title of the third-tallest bell-and-clock-tower in the world. Considering the fact that of Cal’s undergraduate population, 13 percent are international students while 18 percent are from underrepresented racial groups, the UC Berkeley campus accumulates a high number of tourists families who are visiting their child and thus, the Bay Area.
The symbolic and elegant Sather tower lures the attention of many of these tourist families, one being the Cheng family. Malory Cheng is a native Chinese wife and mother of two children. Malory, her husband, and their daughter have come to the Bay Area to visit their son, Jun Cheng, who is currently an undergraduate at UC Berkeley. Although having some difficulty articulating her ideas in English, Mrs. Cheng’s appreciation for the welcoming atmosphere of the Bay Area is evident: “We arrived last Saturday and are here for two weeks… so far we love it here, it has been great to us.” Despite the language barrier that Malory faces, she reports that “there are actually a lot of people who speak Chinese here [Berkeley], which has been helpful a few times so far.” However, this is not the Cheng family’s first time in the Bay. Jun revealed that they all visited in 2015 when he was initially accepted at UC Berkeley and since that visit, the Cheng family has adored the Bay Area. This secondary visit is a chance for them to explore beyond the college campus: “We are going to San Francisco tomorrow. Union Square.” Malory excitedly asserts. The mutual gratitude for each other between locals like Azancot, Grant and Kahiaina and tourists like the Cheng family, illustrates the symbiotic and thriving industry of tourism in the Bay Area.