San Francisco To Welcome Pandas and More Flights From China

Skift Take

San Francisco has experienced a rocky rebound since the pandemic, but promises of pandas and planes may uplift the city’s tourism.

San Francisco is gearing up to greet more visitors from China, starting with a pair of pandas.

Mayor London Breed returned from China over the weekend, bringing news of how China intends to send pandas to the San Francisco Zoo as early as 2025. Travel and economic leaders also spoke with Chinese airlines about increasing flights to the city.

China’s tradition of panda diplomacy — bringing giant pandas to the country’s partners with the help of a conservation team — symbolizes more than just new zoo residents. The pandas could draw more U.S. visitors while representing appreciation for the city’s Chinese heritage.

San Francisco’s downtown has been struggling to attract visitors due to some travelers’ negative perception of the city’s safety. The city isn’t expected to go back to pre-pandemic tourism levels until next year.

Ushering in Tourism Growth

This isn’t the zoo’s first time hosting pandas. In 1985, the San Francisco Zoo hosted two orphaned giant pandas. The pair attracted three times the average number of zoo visitors in their first month, according to a spokesperson. Over one million visitors came for the pandas during their stint.

“The zoo is really beloved by our local community in San Francisco as well as our regional communities. It’s a beloved asset for the state of California,” said Cassandra Costello, San Francisco Travel’s chief policy and external affairs officer. She hopes “history will repeat itself” in terms of turnout for the upcoming panda arrival.

China is one of San Francisco’s largest markets for overseas visitors. According to Costello, Oxford Economics forecasts Chinese visitors will spend $1.1 billion this year in the San Francisco area, just down from the $1.2 billion they spent in 2019. 

“This is a major signal about the strength of our relationship with China, which we know will in turn attract more Chinese visitors,” Costello said.

Now Boarding: More Chinese Flights

During the pandemic, the U.S. and China mutually agreed on limiting flights, but those restrictions are only slowly lifting now.

A spokesperson from San Francisco International Airport told Skift the airport hopes to increase flights with Chinese airlines. China flights have long relied on San Francisco as a gateway to the U.S.

Due to the Covid-era agreement, throughout most of 2023, only a dozen flights ran each week between China and the U.S. (yes, the entire U.S.). As of earlier this year, 50 flights operate. While San Francisco accommodates many of these flights, the airport is only halfway toward a full recovery of Chinese trips.

“Almost every other market has recovered back to pre-pandemic levels and then some,” the spokesperson said. “The exception, of course, is China, due in part because of these bilateral agreement restrictions. It’s not so much what the market will bear — it’s that this kind of limit has been placed on the number of these flights.”

During her press conference, Breed addressed how there is Chinese demand to visit San Francisco, but cost and visas could be barriers. The airport sees how increasing the supply of flights could lower the steep price tag, making the process for Chinese visitors a bit easier.

“Demand for air travel between China and the U.S. is very strong,” the spokesperson said. “But the supply is being artificially constrained by this bilateral agreement. If you relax that further, the more flights there are, the better it is for ticket prices, the better it is for customers.”

San Francisco currently hosts flights with a few Chinese carriers, but the airport wants to increase flights across those partners while expanding to more airlines. Other Chinese carriers include Shenzhen Airlines, China Airlines, and Hainan Airlines.

The U.S. airline industry expressed concern about competition, but the airport believes in the potential of more Chinese flights. The spokesperson said the airport estimates one daily flight from China could bring over $175 million in revenue to local economies and spur 1,200 jobs.

“Even just one additional flight has a really powerful effect to local economies,” he said. 

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