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Our Tourists, Ourselves: Learning to Love the People That Give Us $8.34 Billion a Year

Photo by Alex Farnum

 

The offices of 7x7 are located smack-dab in Union Square and so close to the gates of Chinatown that I can almost feel our building on Grant Street pulsing with the chirps of the toy crickets for sale. Double-deckers rumble by, clouding the air with puffs of exhaust, cable car tracks clatter, and doormen whistle for cabs.

Every day, GoCars buzz past the old sash window by my desk. I don’t have to look out from the fourth floor to know that the tiny canary-yellow car is filled with a couple of spaced-out tourists in helmets, viewing our fair city at a vulnerable speed of 10 mph from the vantage point of Tom Thumb. Over a fuzzy loudspeaker, a recorded GPS system introduces the landmarks—something like, “On your right is Maiden Lane, which houses high-end boutiques, but back in the days of the Barbary Coast, it was thriving with brothels.” The tourists snap-to for a sepia-toned flashback of raunchy sex.

“On your left is 7x7 magazine, your leading source for all things not about Fisherman’s Wharf. Read it, and save yourself now.”

OK, the GoCar doesn’t say that. It’s only my fantasy. The narcissistic editor in me thinks that one day I’ll rescue the exhausted tourists. The ones who allow the North Beach hecklers to convince them that their red sauce joint is a better choice for dinner than, say, A16. I’ll save the gawky tweens in flip-flops, straight off the plane from Fort Lauderdale, trailing behind their families, trying not to stare at the first homeless guy they’ve ever seen—the one in the hospital gown. I’m thinking of visitors like my former dentist in Louisiana who used to rave about his convention trips to San Francisco, his favorite city, and all the bus tours he went on.

I want to show the tourists the city I’ve spent my adult life writing about. Like the 360-degree vista from Bernal Hill, my favorite dumpling place in the Outer Sunset, the view of the bridge from Baker Beach. Maybe being around tourists has made me protective of them.

It wasn’t long ago that I didn’t even consider the annual 15,920,000 visitors that flood our city for both leisure and conventions. I’d never really processed the fact that more than half of the 14 percent hotel tax goes straight to paving our roads, hiring our police force, maintaining our parks, and supporting our social services. We might like to ride on the coattails of Google, but when it comes to what makes the Bay Area go, Silicon Valley gets tech, and we get tourists.

Last year, tourists spent $8.34 billion here, and from that amount the city made $485 million in taxes. But unless you frequent the Stinking Rose or work in Ghirardelli Square, tourists probably exist largely in your subconscious. They’re simply a part of the city’s background. There’s the Golden Gate Bridge and there’s a bunch of tourists in windbreakers. End of story. That is, unless you take a moment to poke fun. They’re wearing shorts in July. Ha! Don’t they read? I wouldn’t go as far as to say that locals harbor disdain for tourists—not at all—but San Franciscans are such a determined bunch of individualists that the sight of people moving en masse on group tours just goes against our ethos. I’m sure there’s a psychology behind this. The locals of any city must separate themselves from their tourists if just for the sake of identity.

I should interrupt for a moment to say that I didn’t grow up in the city I’ve come to call home for the past 18 years—a place continually ranked the No. 1 destination in the U.S. by the readers of Condé Nast Traveler, a place with one of the most iconic bridges in the world, a place that makes all my non-SF friends tell me how lucky I am. “What great views, what amazing food!” they say. It’s the kind of positive reinforcement that makes you forget (for a moment) your pile of parking bills, perennial lack of a suntan, and that guy in the hospital gown. It’s also the thing that can make you smug, despite your best intentions.

Like so many non-native locals, I grew up somewhere far less glamorous—in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to be specific—a place that failed to lure people from the mall to a downtown shopping center called Catfish Town, now long shuttered. A place that elicits fewer exclamations and draws more blanks. In Baton Rouge, I never saw people lost, looking at maps. I never saw the city where I live—my life essentially—reflected in the lens of a tourist’s camera.

That took moving here. Actually, it took more than that. It took 7x7 announcing in 2003 that it was moving offices from SoMa to a drafty old building at Grant Avenue and Geary Street. I balked. To my mind, a part of town where the tourists outweigh the locals isn’t really San Francisco and certainly not an inspirational place for a magazine trying to brand itself as a hip source for insider information. Writer’s block was inevitable.

Despite my protestations, we trudged north of Market Street and settled in. The same part of me that always wants to blend in when I travel to other cities wanted to wear a sign that said, “I’m not a tourist, I swear.”

Of course, I had to leave my desk to do things like eat. As I entered the crush of people (by the time June hits, walking down Powell Street is an ordeal), I’d see cliques of Japanese kids working outlandish outfits that only fly in Tokyo and American couples holding hands, looking up, pointing at buildings that I’d never given a second glance. When the dollar was weak, there were enough chic Italians sipping espresso and smoking cigarettes at Rulli’s outdoor cafe that my lunch break felt like a 30-minute European vacation.

Year-round, I pass clusters of conventioneers in ill-fitting black suits—their badges still around their necks—blinking like moles in the light as they gleefully escape from the bowels of the Moscone Center, desperate for a stiff drink. Laurie Armstrong, the director of media relations for the San Francisco Travel Association, says this phenomenon has been referred to as cross-dressing. “They come in their business clothes, and they change into their blue jeans to go out,” she says of the convention-goers, the city’s real bread and butter. They make up 7.1 percent of our total visitors, arrive with expense accounts, fill our hotels, employ our caterers, florists, entertainers, and photographers—“all the things you wouldn’t think about,” says Armstrong.

And they’re not going anywhere anytime soon. The Moscone Center is booked out as far as 2026. That kind of business is not easily displaced, not even in times of recession or war. “Even 9/11 didn’t halt convention business,” says Armstrong. Which is why she suggests that when you see Joe Blow from Raleigh, North Carolina walking up Fourth Street fresh out of the American Society for Cytotechnology conference, “you should give him a hug for what he does for the city.”

Of course, that would be very uncool. We have to keep our distance. I think it’s enough that I’ve changed my perspective. On the days when I’m moping about the fog, my insane monthly rent, or the Muni delays, it gives me a shot in the arm to see people from all over the world walking by. And reporting from the most visited neighborhood in San Francisco, I’m here to tell you that, from their perspective, our life looks pretty good.

*This article was originally published in the May issue of 7x7 magazine, on newsstands now. (With a typo that said tourists bring in $834 billion, rather than $8.34 billion—we wish!) Subscribe here.