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San Diego Zoo Welcomes Visitors, Tourist Industry Hopes For Same

The San Diego Zoo's front gate under a larger than life statue of Rex the Lion on June 11, 2020.
Erik Anderson
The San Diego Zoo's front gate under a larger than life statue of Rex the Lion on June 11, 2020.

The San Diego Zoo begins welcoming the public this weekend as the facility ends the longest closure in its 103-year history.

It is an early sign that the region’s slumbering tourist economy is starting to wake up from its coronavirus induced coma.

Visitors will get a taste of the Zoo’s new normal before they walk through the San Diego Zoo’s front gate.


“There’s one that will bring people around and they’ll come up this way,” said Erika Kohler, the zoo’s deputy director.

She points out the poles, ropes, and gates that will funnel visitors to the front gate while maintaining safe distances.

Once inside, visitors get a combination of the familiar, like the flock of pink flamingos wading in shallow water.

And they get heavy doses of the new normal. That’s mostly in the form of green and white signs that seem to be everywhere, even on the ground.

All remind visitors to maintain social distance and be safe.


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Video: San Diego's Tourist Economy Is Coming Back To Life

“We’ve really looked at everything to make sure we are providing a very safe and very comfortable environment for our guests,” Kohler said.

Safety includes keeping capacity at 50% as the facility reopening is rolled out.

It also means a lot of Plexiglas barriers at cash registers and any place there’s an interaction between visitors and staff.

“You’ll see a lot of staff on grounds, again to remind people about social distancing,” Kohler said. “At the elevators, making sure there’s only one family group at a time. Our tours. Only one family group at a time. We’re really taking a measured and strategic approach looking at all of our operations to make sure that they are as safe as possible for our guests.”

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Zoo officials know that building confidence is important for building crowds.

And building crowds is key to helping revive the local tourism economy.

The economic sector employed 13% of San Diego’s workforce before COVID 19 shut things down.

“It takes time to be able to reengineer to reopen, to call employees back to do training. But it’s great to see more coming online. It’s the new normal, if you will, for where we are as a community,” said Kerri Kapich, the Chief Operating Officer at the San Diego Tourism Authority. And obviously we’re excited to see that more and more businesses are starting to reopen because we’ve had so many workers, out of work, through this crisis.”

Parks, museums, and the region’s 70 miles of beaches are key lures for San Diego’s third-largest economic sector. Only the military and manufacturing have a larger economic footprint making tourism a key cornerstone of the local economy.

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“Many economists will tell you that this pandemic has had nine times the economic fallout of 9-11,” Kapich said. “It’ll take us time to recover as a community. It’ll take us time to recover as a business sector.”

“People have to have confidence,” said Alan Gin, an economist at the University of San Diego. “Confidence to travel. Confidence to go out and eat at restaurants. Maybe even meet in smaller groups with social distancing. Until that happens, the restaurants can open, the amusement parks can open, the hotels can reopen but they’re not going to get a lot of customers.”

The tourism sector has suffered a dramatic economic shock and it will take a long time to rebuild.

There is also the chance COVID 19 infection rates could climb forcing more social limits in the fall.

“As people go out, some are adhering to recommendations but a lot of people have been avoiding the social distancing wearing masks, things along those lines,” Gin said. “And I’m worried that we’ll have a second outbreak which will further derail the local economy.”

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