Once labeled the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic, New York City is now an anchor for global tourism again and tourism is an even more important part of the city's economic future.
New York’s tourism industry has roared back from its rough pandemic years, but local pessimism and empty offices could hamper the sector’s long-term trajectory.
Meanwhile, local leaders say the tourism sector is more important than ever for the city’s recovery.
Last year, New York reached 85 percent of its pre-pandemic volume, receiving 56.7 million visitors, over 9 million of which were international. This year, the city is projected to welcome 63.3 million visitors and have a full recovery in 2024, said Fred Dixon, president and CEO of New York City Tourism + Conventions (formerly NYC & Company). The tourism workforce is at around 85 percent of its pre-pandemic level and heading in the right direction, he added.
In an “amazingly short time,” the Big Apple has made a strong recovery, especially compared to other major cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, said Peter van Berkel, chairman of the Inbound International Travel Association and president of Travalco.
Globally, in 2022 the Big Apple ranked 8th in terms of international traveler spend ($12.45 billion) and 6th in terms of total travel and tourism GDP ($21 billion), according to the World Tourism and Travel Council.
During the global pandemic, thanks to borders closures and fears of densely populated areas, people avoided travel to and living and working in Boston, New York, London, Paris, Chicago and other large cities. New York City saw its tourist volume nosedive, from 66.6 million in 2019 to 22 million in 2020, and lost $1.2 billion in tax revenue.
What made New York City’s predicament so bad was that it was the epicenter of the Covid-19 global pandemic. Residents fled, businesses shut down, offices were vacant and streets were deserted —turning the city into a ghost town.
There was endless public speculation in news outlets and commentators that the City That Never Sleeps was about to go to bed — maybe forever. “New York Is Dead” was the title of a viral LinkedIn essay by James Altucher, a New Yorker and best-selling author.
With $30 million in support from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan, the city spread the message globally that it was back in action and ready welcome to tourists again. The restart began in 2021 when Broadway reopened, but things really kicked off in Spring 2022, and then New York tourism took off with “incredible momentum,” said Dixon.
In 2022 overall, New York City’s hotels made a “phenomenal comeback”, reaching revenue per available room at $215, according to STR. Hotel inventory now sits around its pre-pandemic level at 127,000 rooms, and there’s 11,000 more in the pipeline over the next two years, said Dixon.
While some renowned hotels like the Roosevelt Hotel haven’t re-opened, new ones have come online. Aman, which has an entry level rate of $5,000, opened last year. It’s “redefining the luxury experience for New York,” said Dixon.
Traditional attractions like the Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty are doing “very close” to 2019 numbers if not exceeding,” said Jeremy Wilcox, a tour guide and board treasurer and public relations committee chair of Guides Association of New York City.
Tour operators and guides are busy, although their recovery is uneven. “I know tour guides for their best year ever was 2022,” said Wilcox. “A lot of the guides who’ve had worse were entirely or primarily reliant on the double decker sightseeing buses.”
As part of the restart, the city’s tourism agency has been emphasizing neighborhood exploration, local engagement, deeper travel in boroughs beyond Manhattan, providing skills and marketing training, and spreading out travel spend to more BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) businesses.
While tourism is booming, the city has some underlying problems. One is the drop in civic pride, which can make tourism promotion tougher.
About 70 percent of New Yorkers feel negatively about the city’s direction, said Kathryn Wylde, president and CEO of the Partnership for New York City, a consortium of corporations and business executives. Affordability and public safety were the top reasons. “We don’t believe we can sell New York City unless New Yorkers believe in it first,” she said.
Another problem is a long-term economic viability of the city. Like other major cities, New York is suffering from vacant offices. The office vacancy rate in Manhattan reached a record level, according to CoStar, a real estate information provider. About 16 percent of the 470 million square feet of space was vacant in the first quarter. Leasing volume was the smallest since the second quarter of 2021.
The popularity of hybrid and remote work is costing the city $12.4 billion, according to Bloomberg News. Restaurants, stores and entertainment venues are losing $4,661 on average worker spending each year. Mayor Eric Adams has repeatedly urged Wall Street firms — which account for 8 percent of the city’s tax collection — to bring their workers back to the offices.
“A lot of my friends are permanently remote or hybrid,” Wilcox said. “What a lot of us are wondering is how [Midtown Manhattan] will look in five years.”
Loss in tax revenue can cause cities to cut back on infrastructure maintenance and improvements, both of which hurt tourism and pride in the city. A hollow destination or poorly maintained infrastructure is palpable for tourists and will “affect what they’re going to say to their friends when they’re asked about it,” said Kelly Torrens, vice president of product for Kensington Tours.
To make up for the loss in local revenue, local businesses are depending more on tourists. “If you talk to Broadway, the attractions and the museums, they’ll tell you that tourism spending is strong and they are relying on the spending of travelers to make up for any shortfalls,” said New York City Tourism + Conventions’ Dixon.
Compared to the average New Yorker, tourism industry professionals are more optimistic, said Wilcox. “I think the post-Covid recovery has made tourism much more important and a larger part of New York’s economic picture.”
Have a confidential tip for Skift? Get in touch
Photo credit: Tourism has emerged as an even more important sector for New York City's recovery from the pandemic. Source: Unsplash/James Ting James Ting / Unsplash