As tourism clears, Times Square hopes to regain some luster
NEW YORK – David Cohen longs for a throwback to the days when business was booming in his family’s Times Square gift shop.
As tourists have started to return, the foot traffic in Grand Slam memories is still not what it was before the coronavirus pandemic, when hordes of visitors from around the world gathered under the canopy of billboards. electrical displays right outside his door.
But the return of foreign tourists to a place commonly known as the Crossroads of the World may help accelerate the takeover of businesses like his – many of which are family-owned stores – which collectively employ thousands of people and are one of the largest. from New York. important economic drivers.
“We welcome them with open arms,” Cohen said after the United States began allowing vaccinated international travelers into the country this month. “We have a long way to go. “
Times Square has long been the hallmark of the bustle of New York City. But as the theaters on Broadway closed and the city became one of the first epicenters of the global pandemic, 9 out of 10 businesses in the region closed, according to a district civic group, The Times Square Alliance.
“We were truly a symbol to the world of the pandemic and the hiatus,” said Tom Harris, president of the alliance.
Three-quarters of businesses in the area have since reopened, bit by bit, as Broadway shows began to reopen to an exclusively vaccinated audience.
Among those who are hopefully restarting are companies that don’t cater directly to tourists, but are part of the city’s entertainment ecosystem.
Sam Vasili’s shoe repair reopened last month across 51st Street from the Gershwin Theater, where it had operated for three decades before a long pandemic shutdown.
Owner Sam Smolyar was all smiles one recent afternoon as he shared the news that a Broadway production slated to reopen nearby had asked for his help. For years he helped outfit the Rockettes with bespoke boots. “We are counting on the theater and on businesses here,” he said.
He hopes more people buying Broadway tickets will mean busier times.
“It’s starting to get better,” said Vasili, who employs three people in the store.
Just before the COVID-19 outbreak, New York City had a record number of tourists – 66.6 million in 2019, including 13.5 million outside the United States. Then, the pandemic resulted in severe restrictions on foreign travel.
A marketing blitz has been going on for months to remind Americans that New York City is once again open for business and ready to welcome the visiting masses. Now, the city is expanding its reach to those outside of the United States, who are particularly desirable because they spend more time and more money on their visits.
While domestic travel accounted for 80% of visitors, foreign tourists account for about half of the city’s tourism spending and typically accounts for half of all hotel bookings.
Harris of Times Square Alliance said the neighborhood is already bouncing back. Since May, he said, the number of pedestrians counted in some places has fallen from 150,000 per day to 250,000 – still well below the roughly 365,000 people who walked the gridlines before the pandemic.
“Between the return of Broadway, the return of international tourists,” said Harris, “we really expect to hit these pre-pandemic numbers sooner than most people expect.”
Those returning visitors included people like Marina Galan, who soaked in Times Square from the stands under a cascade of lights. She and her friends flew to New York from Madrid on the first day the U.S. borders opened to vaccinated tourists.
“When you come back to New York, that’s what you want to see,” she said. “Everything is sort of back to normal. “
His friend Pablo Leon said he was eager to come back. The group took a risk last March by purchasing tickets to the Hadestown musical on Broadway, although they don’t know when they would be allowed to travel to the United States.
“It was the real bet because we bought the tickets for tonight, not knowing if we were going to be able to come here,” said Leon.
NYC & Company, the city’s tourism agency, spends millions of dollars overseas to attract tourists. It projects 2.8 million foreign visitors by the end of the year, a fraction of the 13.5 million visitors in 2019. With the reopening of the borders, authorities hope that the number of visitors will increase steadily over the years. years and will again reach record levels in the next few years. four years.
“We hope to do everything possible to expedite this timeline,” said Chris Heywood, executive vice president of the agency.
The campaign is initially focused on Canada, Mexico, Brazil, South Korea and parts of Europe, but will likely expand to other countries – possibly China, a particularly lucrative market as Chinese visitors spend much more than other nationalities.
Chinese visitors, however, may decide to stay put for the time being due to quarantine requirements at home – at least two weeks upon returning from a trip overseas.
“Day trips and domestic tourists are helping Broadway, museums and restaurants, but New York cannot reach our pre-pandemic visitor level until international tourism fully returns,” he said. said New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. “The reopening of the US borders is a great help, but other factors beyond our control make it difficult to see when we will return to the numbers we had before the world closed.”
The return of annual traditions like the big Thanksgiving parade in New York and the New Years celebration in Times Square could attract more visitors.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul also announced a $ 450 million initiative to help revitalize the tourism industry.
On a recent day, William Brownstein sold tickets to a comedy club to passers-by who might now be ready to laugh at months of bad news.
“With all the crazy things going on” – with Republicans and Democrats, with pro and anti-vaccine views – “you have to laugh about it,” said Brownstein, who returned from his unscheduled hiatus in May, shortly after the opening of the comedy clubs. allowed to reopen.
“I think over time we’ll see a lot more people coming,” he predicted. “It’s just going to take a little while, but they’ll be back as before. “