The lines at the Halal Guys food truck in the heart of Manhattan are getting longer. The number of international visitors buying tickets to the Statue of Liberty has increased by 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 to vaccinated foreign travelers on November 8th. Initial signs suggest that they have returned to New York, the most popular American destination for international tourists.
But many businesses that depend on international visitors, including hotel operators and restaurants, are seeing signs that even more tourists may flock in as the year-end holiday season approaches, providing a much-needed boost as the city’s workforce struggles to recover from the pandemic.
The tourism industry has become more and more a pillar of the New York 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 guards to bus drivers.
Some airlines reported that their first tourist flights to New York were fully booked in 20 months.
“It really seems like the city would like to show itself to the world again,” said Christiaan Vander Kuylen, who recently arrived from Brussels. “The energy is incredible.”
This was Mr. Vander Kuylen’s first trip to New York. He came to meet his partner who had 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 bought jeans and trainers in SoHo, a neighborhood where retailers were battered by the decline in tourism.
The return gave cause for optimism for the city’s tourism authorities, even though they forecast that only 2.8 million overseas travelers will visit New York this year, a steep drop from the 13.5 million who visited in 2019.
Before the pandemic, around half of all credit card sales in the city’s major department stores were from tourists. International visitors tend to spend more money and book longer trips; they represent 20 percent of New York City’s visitors, but make up half of the spending. Above all, hotels rely on overseas travelers to fill their rooms during the week.
In 2019, the largest groups of international travelers came to New York from the UK, China, Canada and Brazil.
Tourism forecasts have been dampened by the fact that China still has strict restrictions on travelers leaving the country. In the years leading up to the pandemic, every Chinese tourist in New York spent an average of $ 3,000, nearly 60 percent more than the average for international visitors, according to the New York State Treasury.
Still, the return of other overseas travelers is already having an oversized impact on companies like BO’s Bagels in Harlem, which have been a popular stop for European visitors on tours of Harlem churches.
About a week ago, Andrew Martinez, the owner, noticed a flood of non-English speaking visitors to the store who ordered unusual combinations, like smoked salmon with Nutella on a bagel. Passenger traffic was 30 percent higher than normal.
Based on demand, he felt more comfortable adding two new employees, both of whom started within the last week. “It saved us,” said Mr. Martinez, 48 ,. “For the past week it has felt like I woke up from a coma and everything was just normal.”
In Lower Manhattan’s Battery Park, 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 US borders reopened, said operations manager Michael Burke Officer of Statue Cruises. Traffic on his overseas ticket booking website has increased more than 60 percent in the past few weeks, he said.
In interviews with more than a dozen international visitors to New York City, many said they immediately booked tickets to visit families or meet business associates after the travel ban was lifted.
Dave Hughes, the managing director of a start-up in Scotland, traveled from Glasgow and stopped in New York before leaving for 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 to New York several times a year. This time he was shocked by the thinner crowds in Times Square and the empty storefronts across town.
“Walking around and not being jostled by tourists with bags was definitely something else,” he said.
On November 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 previous Saturday, according to the Times Square Alliance, a business advocacy group. A comparable day in 2019 had around 330,000 passers-by.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has also announced that Times Square will once again greet the crowds for its traditional New Year’s Eve ball drop, which he believes is “further proof to the world that we are 100 percent back.” (Participants must be fully vaccinated.)
North of Times Square, at the Halal Guys food truck, business rose about 20 percent on the first weekend with international visitors, according to chief marketing officer Andrew Eck. Foreign tourists traditionally made up around 30 percent of customers at the shopping cart, which was known for the long lines of people waiting for its chicken and beef rice platters – and has now become a global franchise company.
Still, some hotel and restaurant owners have been cautious in their reviews, saying the reopening may have come too late to attract significant numbers of international visitors before next year.
“Personally, I think it’s going to be a little slower,” said Mandy Oser, who has been running the Ardesia Wine Bar in Hell’s Kitchen since 2009.
Business at Ardesia has steadily improved since the Broadway theaters reopened in September, but Ms. Oser is still waiting for a tourist rush. Ms Oser said she was looking forward to the arrival of an influencer from the Netherlands who she hoped would spread the word about Ardesia’s wine and cheese combinations.
Even without tourists, Ms. Oser expects a robust business in December, as local customers book holiday parties and scream for New Year’s Eve reservations.
In the week ending November 14, more than 214,000 people attended Broadway shows, an 11 percent increase from the previous week, according to the Broadway League, a trade organization that represents producers and theater owners. It wasn’t clear how much of the increase was due to international travelers, who typically make up a fifth of the participants.
At the Q4 Hotel, a hostel in Queens that relies almost entirely on foreign travelers, bookings for late November and December are almost sold out, according to Aaron Lajara, a hotel manager. The hostel, which offers shared rooms for up to eight people, was closed for 19 months before reopening in October.
During that time, Mr. Lajara, 29, survived from unemployment benefits and state economic controls.
“It was a struggle financially,” he said. “I was mentally excited to get back to work.”
Tourists will have more lodging options as several hotels reopened last month under pressure from a new local law requiring them to pay redundant workers $ 500 a week in severance pay unless they opened their doors and at least turned on 25 percent of their employees back on.
Two of the city’s largest hotels – the Hilton and the Grand Hyatt in Midtown – reopened this fall. But several are still closed, leaving thousands of hotel workers unemployed.
Larger tour groups, a lucrative source of income for tourist destinations, will likely take longer to return in full force. A spokesman for the 9/11 Memorial & Museum said international groups are booking tickets for spring 2022.
Overall, tourism will not return to 2019 levels before 2024, according to forecasts by the city’s tourism agency.
Andy Sydor, a certified tour guide for more than two decades, lives on his 2019 savings when he worked every day in June and July. This time was so crowded that you sometimes had to wait three hours to enter the Statue of Liberty.
For the past few months, Mr. Sydor, 58, has been leading private tours of Brooklyn, where he can make $ 50 an hour, with visitors from states such as Oklahoma and Florida. But he has not yet booked an international group during the pandemic.
“If I saw a single international booking, I would be a little more excited,” he said.
John Fitzpatrick, who owns two Fitzpatrick hotels in Midtown, said the first wave of overseas visitors appeared to have gone to relatives’ homes for the long-awaited reunions. “Even if they want to visit their family, they still come to town to shop,” he said.
Another wave of tourists is on the way, said Mr Fitzpatrick after his bookings. He said all 250 of his rooms had been sold out for the first weekend in December with a large number of guests from Ireland.
“It’s coming,” he said.
Michael Paulson contributed to the coverage.