It used to be an amusing twist on an old joke: "It's a nice city to live in, but I wouldn't want to visit there." Today, though, San Franciscans in both government and business don't think it's funny.
City tourism figures for last year show a 6.9 percent decrease -- large among West Coast vacation cities -- and the Bay Area totals are still on the decline in 1981.
Local trend-watchers say the decrease is due to several factors: International arrivals are off 22 percent, some of which may be caused by the strong US dollar's cutting into foreign tourists' buying power; confusing and conflicting domestic air-fare rates; high West Coast prices for gasoline; and less disposable income available for travel.
San Fancisco has been even harder hit than some of its neighboring cities. Bay Area hotel vacancies in 1980 were off 5 percent against a 1 percent decrease figure in Los Angeles and a 2 percent drop in San Diego.
Tourism has long been San Francisco's prime source of commercial revenue, rising steadily in each of the past 10 years. Probably because of this, the city has not had to spend heavily to attract visitors. It had only to list its smogless air, the one-and-only cable car system, year-round moderate climate, and a cosmopolitan atmosphere.
It is the only large US city without a convention-bureau office in Washington , D.C. -- an area where large groups and associations can be pre- sold on meeting sites. Until recently there was no visible worry that the city did not attract enough conventions because it had no adequate facilities. In December, though, this will no longer be a deterrent with the opening of the $120 million George R. Moscone Center in the heart of Civic Plaza.
The San Francisco Board of Supervisors is refocusing its attention on the city's advertising budget, which some feel may need to be increased if the city is to hold its own as a vacation magnet. In 1980 the San Francisco advertising expenditures totaled $1.7 million. In comparison, San Diego spent over $2 million, Los Angeles almost $3 million, and Las Vegas over $8 million.