This work was supported by National Geographic Society's Emergency Fund for Journalists
Steam rises from the pots cooking crabs at Sabella & La Torre, one of half a dozen of seafood stalls crammed into a mismatch of charming historic buildings where Taylor Street ends in Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco’s tourist hub. However, the usual throngs of international tourists who used to pack the street waiting to buy the seafood the neighborhood is famous for, have been largely absent since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The economic engine of tourism – making up 10% of the global GDP in 2019 – was uniquely vulnerable to the pandemic. In the US, international tourism has been all but erased. This is especially problematic in San Francisco where tourism is the city’s largest industry, supporting more than 86,000 jobs.
In San Francisco, the Fisherman’s Wharf neighborhood was hit particularly hard as most of its businesses rely almost exclusively on tourism. It is consistently the city’s leading destination, with the neighborhood’s PIER 39, ranking, in most years, as the most visited attraction.
The transition from industrial area to tourist mecca began after restaurants first appeared in the 1920s to cater to the dock laborers and fishermen looking for a place to eat when they came back to shore. On weekends, these workhands began bringing their families to eat at the wharf. As more and more people discovered them, a destination was born and attractions began to take over the wharf, slowly pushing the industrial side to the fringes.
A tourist might not realize at first, but just behind those seafood restaurants, lies a still functioning commercial fishing enterprise. Each year, an estimated 19 million pounds of seafood come through the wharf’s 22 processing companies, with around 185 commercial fishing vessels calling the wharf their home base. The early morning-work is usually hidden behind the t-shirt shops, tourist attractions and restaurants. But, when shelter-in-place orders ground tourism to a halt, the essential fishing industry kept on operating – offering the only signs of activity in the once-crowded neighborhood.
With international tourists absent, local and regional visitors have offered a lifeline to some of the neighborhood’s businesses. When pandemic regulations allowed, regional visitors started appearing on the weekends. The businesses had to deal with repeatedly changing restrictions and multiple shelter-in-place orders as cases surged and then decreased. Restaurants had to be especially flexible, having to alternate several times between setting up for takeout only, outdoor dining and indoor dining as rules constantly changed.
The borders re-opened in November 2021 and international tourists have started to trickle back, but with new variants and the continually changing state of the pandemic, the tourism industry remains vulnerable.
With global tourism not projected to rebound for years, it remains to be seen whether the neighborhood’s tourist-focused businesses will be able to make up for the lost international market with local and regional visitors. The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the vulnerabilities in a community relying too much on tourism revenues, something Fisherman’s Wharf and other areas that depend on visitors for their economic survival have learned first-hand. The remains of the wharf’s industrial past, the fishing businesses, have continued though to operate relatively normally throughout the pandemic. One of the many things the pandemic may reshape is how communities around the globe think about balancing tourism with maintaining an essential, local community.