David Cohen is longing for a return to the days when his family’s souvenir shop in Times Square boomed in business.
While tourists have begun to return, the foot traffic at Grand Slam souvenirs is still not the same as it was before the coronavirus pandemic, when crowds of global visitors crowded under electric billboards just outside its doors.
But the return of foreign tourists to a place called the crossroads of the world could help a speedy recovery for businesses like theirs—many of them mom-and-pop shops—that collectively employ thousands of people and New York City. Works as one of the most important economic engine.
“We welcome them with open arms,” Cohen said after the US allowed vaccinated international travelers into the country this month. “We have a long way to go.”
Times Square has long stood as a symbol of the bustle of New York. But as Broadway cinemas closed their doors and the city became an early epicenter of the global pandemic, 9 out of 10 businesses in the area closed, according to The Times Square Alliance, a district citizens’ group.
“We were truly the epitome of a world of pandemic and pause,” said Coalition President Tom Harris.
Three-quarters of the area’s businesses have since reopened, as Broadway shows reopen to vaccinated audiences only.
Hopefully among those starting up again are businesses that don’t directly cater to tourists, but are part of the city’s entertainment ecosystem.
Sam Vasily’s Shoe Repair reopened last month across from the Gershwin Theater on 51st Street, where it operated for three decades before a prolonged pandemic shut down.
Owner Sam Smolyaer was smiling on a recent afternoon as he shared the news that a nearby Broadway production set to reopen had sought his help. For years, he helped outfit Rocket with custom-fitted shoes. “We trust the theater and the businesses here,” he said.
He hopes that more people buying tickets on Broadway will mean busy times.
“It starts to get better,” said Vasily, who employs three people at the shop.
Just before the outbreak of COVID-19, New York City was posting record numbers of tourists – 66.6 million in 2019, including 13.5 million from outside the US, when the pandemic imposed severe restrictions on travel abroad.
A marketing blitz has been underway for months to remind Americans that New York City is again open for business and ready for those to come. Now the city is expanding its reach to people outside the US, who are especially coveted because they spend more time and more money on their travels.
While domestic travel accounts for 80% of visitors, foreign tourists account for about half of the city’s tourism expenses and generally account for half of all hotel bookings.
Harris of the Times Square Alliance said the district is already rebounding. Since May, he said, the number of pedestrians counted in some places has increased from 150,000 per day to 250,000 – still far less than the roughly 365,000 people who trampled through the grid of streets before the pandemic.
“Among the return of Broadway, the return of international tourists,” Harris said, “we expect to actually be in the pre-pandemic numbers that most people predict.”
Returning visitors included people like Marina Galen, who drenched in Times Square from bleachers under a cascade of lights. She and her friends flew from Madrid to New York on the first day the US borders were opened to vaccinated tourists.
“When you come back to New York, this is what you want to see,” she said. “Everything is back to normal.”
Her friend Pablo Leone said she looked forward to returning. The group took a risk last March when they bought tickets to the Broadway musical Hadestown, despite being unsure about when they would be allowed to travel to the United States.
“It was true gamble because we bought tickets for tonight without knowing if we were able to get here,” Lyon said.
The city’s tourism agency NYC & Company is spending millions of dollars overseas to repatriate tourists. It projects 2.8 million foreign visitors by the end of the year, up from 13.5 million arriving in 2019. With the reopening of borders, officials expect the number of visitors to rise steadily over the next few years and reach record levels again within the next. four years.
“We’re looking forward to doing everything we can to accelerate that timeline,” said Chris Heywood, the agency’s executive vice president.
The campaign initially focused on Canada, Mexico, Brazil, South Korea and parts of Europe, but will likely expand to other countries – possibly in China, a particularly lucrative market as Chinese visitors outnumber other nationalities.
Chinese visitors, however, may decide to stay back for at least two weeks after returning from overseas travel due to the requirements to stay back home.
New York State Controller Thomas P. “Daytrip and domestic tourists are helping Broadway, museums and restaurants, but New York may not reach the pre-pandemic levels of our visitors until international tourism fully returns,” Dinapoli said. “Reopening America’s borders is a huge help, but other factors, beyond our control, make it difficult to see when we will return to numbers before the world shut down.”
The return of annual traditions like New York City’s big Thanksgiving parade and the Times Square New Year’s Eve festivities could attract more visitors.
New York Governor Kathy Hochul has also announced a $450 million initiative to help revive the tourism industry.
On a recent day, William Brownstein handed out tickets to the Comedy Club to passersby who may now be ready to laugh at months of grim news.
“All the crazy stuff going on”—with Republicans and Democrats, with pro- and anti-vaccine attitudes—”You had to laugh about it,” said Brownstein, who returned from his unplanned hiatus in May shortly after comedy clubs. . allowed to reopen.
“I think as time goes on, we’ll see a lot more people coming,” he predicted. “It’s going to take a while, but they’ll be back like before.”
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