Signs of Optimism as NYC Sees Rise in Tourism, Bit by Bit

NEW YORK (AP) -
A hot dog vending cart in New York’s Times Square, Tuesday, April 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Tourists who vanished from New York City’s museums, hotels and cultural attractions when the coronavirus pandemic hit a year ago are trickling back in as restrictions loosen.

City officials are optimistic, even in the wake of an incident in Times Square on Saturday, when three people — including a child — were injured by stray bullets when a dispute led to gunfire.

“In the end, people want to come to this city,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday. “It is an overwhelmingly safe city, when you look at New York City compared to cities around the country, around the world.”

In 2019, an estimated 67 million people visited the city. In 2020, that plummeted to slightly more than 22 million, mostly those who came before the pandemic began rampaging in New York in March.

Restaurants and stores were forced to close, as were some hotels, bringing the city’s available rooms from 124,000 to 88,000, according to city tourism officials.

The daytime Times Square shooting brought a fresh round of handwringing.

But after a moribund year, things are looking up. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, has reached 9,000 visitors on some recent days. That’s still far less than the swarms of 25,000 who once packed in on the busiest days pre-pandemic, but far more than the museum was seeing when it reopened in late August.

Ridership is up on the ferries that take visitors from the southern tip of Manhattan to the Statue of Liberty, where the grounds and a museum are open even as the statue’s interior remains off limits.

Hotel occupancy, which had been running in the 30% range, has been in the 50% range over the last few weeks, said Fred Dixon, president and CEO of NYC & Company, the city’s tourism agency.

New hotels are opening, and the number of rooms is expected to reach 118,000 by year’s end.

“It’s just really wonderful,” Dixon said of the city’s cautious reawakening. “And so, it’s given us a lot of hope.”
The agency is predicting just over 31 million visitors in 2021.

City and state officials in recent weeks have been making moves to open the city up as much as possible.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced the city’s subway system would return to 24-hour service in mid-May. Capacity restrictions on businesses are being lifted, although 6 feet (2 meters) of space between patrons will still be required.

De Blasio last month announced a $30 million tourism marketing campaign that NYC & Company will launch in June.

The city and state are also setting up vaccination stations offering free shots to tourists.

“We think this is a positive message to tourists. Come here. It’s safe. It’s a great place to be and we’re going to take care of you,” said de Blasio, a Democrat.

In a city where multitudes are dependent on tourism for their livelihoods, things can’t get better quickly enough.

Michael Keane, an owner of O’Hara’s Restaurant and Pub near the World Trade Center site, said things have been looking up.

“It’s been a slow crawl but we’re seeing more and more tourists every week come in the area,” he said, noting that he’s keeping a nervous eye on how the virus has continued to ravage some other countries. “I can’t imagine going through that again.”