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Signs of Optimism as New York City Sees Rise in Tourism

By Deepti Hajela, Associated Press

May 12, 2021

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Recent visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art walk past Antonio Canova's "Perseus with the Head of Medusa."

Photo by Mary Altaffer/AP

Recent visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art walk past Antonio Canova's "Perseus with the Head of Medusa."

Bit by bit, travelers are returning to the city that was the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020.

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The once-deserted steps outside the Metropolitan Museum of Art are filling up with visitors again. Hotel lobbies are losing their desolate feel. Downtown, people are back to taking selfies with the Charging Bull statue near Wall Street.

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.

New York State Lifts All COVID Restrictions

There’s still a long way to go before the still-closed theater district is mobbed with international travelers again.

But lately, indicators like hotel occupancy and museum attendance have ticked up, thanks to domestic travelers and day-trippers who don’t mind seeing the city operating at less than its usual hectic pace.

“I’ve always wanted to come to New York, just because I’ve watched the movies,” said Chazmin Fuhrer, 26, a first-time visitor from Concord, California, who came into the city for a handful of days recently to celebrate a friend’s birthday.

Lounging at a table in Times Square as three street performers started their dance moves nearby, Fuhrer said she knew it wasn’t anywhere near as busy as usual. But she was OK with that.

“It’s kind of nice without a lot of people out,” she said, noting that the prepandemic crush of people would probably now make her nervous, with the virus still circulating.

“In the end, people want to come to this city,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday.

Mohammed Hussein works at his hot dog vending cart in New York’s Times Square.

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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.

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 prepandemic, 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.

Rafael Abreu, vice president for marketing at Statue Cruises, said it had been “fairly slow” through February, but ridership had risen in March and April to about 25 to 30 percent of prepandemic times.

Visitors peek into the museum at the 9/11 Museum & Memorial in New York City.

Hotel occupancy, which had been running in the 30 percent range, has been in the 50 percent 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 available 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.

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

New York Governor 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 six feet of space between patrons will still be required.

The Yankees and Mets have been allowed to boost crowd capacity at games, with no restrictions at all on people who can show they have been vaccinated.

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.

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.”

Limitations remain. Broadway shows won’t start running again until September. Some attractions require timed reservations to keep crowds down. Others are still closed.

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But even with things moving slower, Fuhrer said she was “definitely not disappointed” with her trip.

The lower-key New York City has actually been wonderful, said Stephanie Piefke, 24, of Atlanta, a frequent visitor out recently for some touristy activities with her friend, first-time visitor Danielle Jenkins.

The women, both vaccinated, said at the Empire State Building there were maybe a few dozen people cruising through a waiting area set up to handle what Piefke said would have been a “miserable” snaking line.

She didn’t think the quieter New York City would last, though, once the city fully reopens.

“It’ll be like a tsunami of tourists that have been wanting to come,” she said.

>> Next: AFAR’s Ultimate Guide to New York City

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