New York City’s International Tourists Are Trickling Back

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The lines are getting longer at the Halal Guys food cart in the heart of Manhattan. The number of international visitors buying Statue of Liberty tickets has jumped more than 50 percent. And a few thousand more people are walking through Times Square.

After more than 18 months, the United States reopened its borders on Nov. 8 to vaccinated foreign travelers. Early indications suggest that they have been trickling back to New York, the top American destination city for international tourists.

But many businesses that depend on international visitors, including hotel operators and restaurants, see signs that even more tourists could start streaming in as the year-end holiday season approaches, providing a badly needed boost as the city’s labor force struggles to recover from the pandemic.

The tourism industry has increasingly become a pillar of New York’s economy. A record 66.6 million travelers visited the city in 2019, and their spending supported hundreds of thousands of jobs, from restaurant workers to museum security guards to bus drivers.

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Some airlines reported that their first flights carrying tourists to New York in 20 months were fully booked.

“It really seems like the city is happy to show itself to the world again,” said Christiaan Vander Kuylen, who arrived recently from Brussels. “The energy is amazing.”

This was Mr. Vander Kuylen’s first trip to New York. He came to reunite with his partner, who moved here four months ago.

Mr. Vander Kuylen, 25, ate at Katz’s Delicatessen on the Lower East Side and watched “Moulin Rouge” on Broadway. He also shopped for jeans and sneakers in SoHo, a neighborhood where retailers have been pummeled by the drop in tourism.

For the city’s tourism officials, the return has been cause for optimism, even as they have projected only 2.8 million foreign travelers will visit New York this year, a steep plunge from the 13.5 million who visited in 2019.

Before the pandemic, about half of all credit-card sales at the city’s major department stores came from tourists. International visitors tend to spend more and book longer trips; they represent 20 percent of visitors to New York City, but account for half of the spending. Hotels especially depend on overseas travelers to fill up rooms on weeknights.

In 2019, the biggest groups of international travelers to New York came from the United Kingdom, China, Canada and Brazil.

Tourism projections were dampened by the fact that China still has severe restrictions on travelers leaving the country. In the years before the pandemic, each Chinese tourist in New York spent an average of $3,000, almost 60 percent higher than the average for international visitors, according to the New York State comptroller’s office.

Still, the return of other overseas travelers has already had an outsized effect on businesses like BO’s Bagels in Harlem, which had been a popular stop for European visitors during tours of Harlem churches.

Starting about a week ago, Andrew Martinez, the owner, noticed a flood of visitors to the store who did not speak English and ordered unusual combinations, like smoked salmon with Nutella on a bagel. Foot traffic was 30 percent higher than normal.

The demand made him feel more comfortable about adding two new employees, both of whom started within the last week. “It saved us,” Mr. Martinez, 48, said. “In the last week, it felt like I woke up from a coma and everything was just normal.”

At Battery Park in Lower Manhattan, the number of people boarding boats to visit the Statue of Liberty rose to about 5,500 a day in the second week of November, from about 3,500 a day before the American borders reopened, said Michael Burke, the chief operating officer of Statue Cruises. Overseas traffic to its ticket-booking website jumped by more than 60 percent in recent weeks, he said.

In interviews with more than a dozen international visitors in New York City, many said they immediately booked tickets after the travel ban lifted to visit family or meet with business associates.

Dave Hughes, the chief executive of a start-up in Scotland, traveled from Glasgow, stopping in New York before heading to business meetings in Phoenix and Boston. Shortly after his flight landed, he went to his favorite Lower East Side bar, Milano’s Bar, where he was thrilled to see bartenders and other regulars he knew.

Before the pandemic, Mr. Hughes, 38, traveled several times a year to New York. This time, he was startled by the thinner crowds in Times Square and the vacant storefronts throughout the city.

“Walking around and not getting jostled by tourists with bags was definitely different,” he said.

On Nov. 13, the first Saturday after international tourists returned, more than 272,000 people walked through Times Square, a slight 1.2 percent increase from the prior Saturday, according to the Times Square Alliance, a business advocacy group. A comparable day in 2019 had about 330,000 pedestrians.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has also announced that Times Square will welcome the crowds back to its traditional New Year’s Eve ball drop, which he said was “further evidence to the world that we are 100 percent back.” (Attendees must be fully vaccinated.)

Just north of Times Square, at the Halal Guys food cart, business was up about 20 percent during the first weekend with international visitors, according to its chief marketing officer, Andrew Eck. Foreign tourists traditionally made up about 30 percent of customers at the cart, which was famous for the long lines of people waiting for its chicken and beef rice platters — and has now become a global franchise.

Still, some hotel and restaurant owners were cautious in their assessments, saying the reopening may have come too late to draw significant numbers of international visitors before next year.

“I personally think it’s going to be a bit of a slower burn,” said Mandy Oser, who has operated Ardesia Wine Bar in Hell’s Kitchen since 2009.

Business at Ardesia has improved steadily since Broadway theaters started reopening in September, but Ms. Oser is still waiting for a surge of tourists. Ms. Oser said she was looking forward to the arrival of an influencer from the Netherlands, who she hoped would spread word of Ardesia’s wine and cheese pairings.

Even without tourists, Ms. Oser expects business to be robust in December as local customers have been booking holiday parties and clamoring for New Year’s Eve reservations.

In the week ending Nov. 14, more than 214,000 people attended Broadway shows, an 11 percent increase from the prior week, according to the Broadway League, a trade organization representing producers and theater owners. It was not clear how much of the increase was because of international travelers, who typically make up one-fifth of attendees.

At Q4 Hotel, a hostel in Queens that relies almost exclusively on foreign travelers, bookings are nearly sold out for the end of November and December, according to Aaron Lajara, a hotel manager. The hostel, which has shared rooms for up to eight people, shut down for 19 months before reopening in October.

During that period, Mr. Lajara, 29, survived on unemployment benefits and federal stimulus checks.

“Financially, it was a struggle,” he said. “I was excited mentally to come back to work.”

Tourists will have more lodging options because several hotels reopened in the last month under pressure from a new local law that required them to pay $500 a week in severance to laid-off workers unless they opened their doors and rehired at least 25 percent of their employees.

Two of the biggest hotels in the city — the Hilton and the Grand Hyatt in Midtown — reopened this fall. But several are still closed, leaving thousands of hotel workers unemployed.

It will likely take longer for larger tour groups, a lucrative source of income for tourist destinations, to return in full force. A spokesman for the 9/11 Memorial & Museum said international groups are booking tickets for spring 2022.

Tourism overall is not expected to return to 2019 levels until 2024, according to projections from the city’s tourism agency.

Andy Sydor, a certified tour guide for more than two decades, is living off his savings from 2019, when he worked every day in June and July. That period was so overcrowded, he said, that there were sometimes three-hour waits to enter the Statue of Liberty.

In recent months, Mr. Sydor, 58, has led private tours of Brooklyn, where he can make $50 an hour, with visitors from states like Oklahoma and Florida. But he has not yet booked an international group during the pandemic.

“If I saw even a single international booking, I’d be a little more excited,” he said.

John Fitzpatrick, who owns two Fitzpatrick hotels in Midtown, said the first wave of visitors from overseas seemed to have been headed to the homes of relatives for long-awaited reunions. “Even if they’re coming to see family, they’re still coming into the city to shop,” he said.

Another wave of tourists is on its way, Mr. Fitzpatrick said, judging by his bookings. He said all 250 of his rooms were sold out for the first weekend in December, with a large number of guests from Ireland.

“It’s coming,” he said.

Michael Paulson contributed reporting.

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