The truth about pandemic travel

'Be nice to tourists' plea as New York arts scene lures overseas visitors

Newspaper readers in London, Paris, Toronto and Hong Kong were greeted recently with a full-page advertisement from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

"We reopened in August 2020, but have been missing one critical thing - you, our international visitors," the ad said. "The Met is only The Met when it is being enjoyed daily by visitors from around the world."

The unusual display is a signal of the thirst among New York arts institutions for foreign visitors to return.

American borders reopened in recent weeks to international tourists and their return represents another milestone in New York's reopening. Few sectors are more of a draw to foreign travellers - or lean more heavily on them for revenue - than the arts.

Mr Chris Heywood, vice-president for global communications at the city's tourism agency, NYC & Company, said: "Arts and culture are going to lead our recovery. That is the backbone."

Indeed, billions of dollars and thousands of jobs are at stake. Employment in New York City's arts, entertainment and recreation sector plummeted by 66 per cent from December 2019 to December last year.

Even as things reopen and workers are rehired, challenges remain. The tourism agency forecasts that visitor spending this year will be about US$24 billion (S$32.6 billion), half of what was spent in 2019.

International visitors typically make up about a fifth of the city's visitors, but they tend to stay longer and spend more than domestic ones: What they spend accounts for roughly half of all tourism dollars.

On Broadway, tourists from outside the United States comprise about 15 per cent of the audience during a traditional season, said Ms Charlotte St Martin, president of the Broadway League.

The Metropolitan Opera said international ticket sales accounted for about 20 per cent of total box office revenues during the last five seasons.

And more than half of New York's international visitors will visit an art gallery or museum during their trip, according to data from NYC & Company. One in four go to some kind of live performance - be it a concert, play, musical, dance performance or opera.

So New York has been missing them.

"This is a big step forward," said Ms Victoria Bailey, executive director of Theatre Development Fund, a non-profit organisation that runs the TKTS booth, where about 70 per cent of tickets are bought by tourists and roughly half of those sales are to foreign visitors.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has moved some of its marketing dollars overseas in part because it has hit something of a ceiling on attendance, said a museum spokesman.

Before the pandemic, international travellers accounted for about a third of the museum's visitors. Now, the number of people who come daily is about half of what it was before March last year.

Musicals such as The Phantom Of The Opera have invested advertising dollars during this holiday season and placed their displays in high-traffic, touristy areas.

That is why there is an imposing three-dimensional statue of the Phantom's mask strategically plopped next to the TKTS booth and outdoor advertising for Chicago all over Times Square.

Foreign visitors have not yet begun buying tickets to Phantom in material numbers, said the show's general manager Aaron Lustbader. But officials hope that will change soon.

"Typically, January and February are two of the weakest months of the year and this has certainly been true for Phantom," he said.

"Our hope is that - due to pent-up demand of nearly two years and assuming it'd take most people at least a few weeks to put together plans - the city sees a far higher number of international tourists in these otherwise lean months."

And tour operators and ticket vendors overseas say they have started to see their New York business bounce back - somewhat.

Mr Eric Lang, who runs an Amsterdam-based travel and information website that helps vacationers plan trips to New York, said ticket sales last month were up to about 5 per cent of normal sales.

This month, sales are closer to 15 to 20 per cent of what he had come to expect for this period, before the pandemic. "Growth from zero," he said.

Mr Lee Burns, a product manager for AttractionTickets.com, which sells event tickets to people and travel agents in Britain, said he thought the timing of the American reopening might have come "a bit too late" to capitalise on the holiday season.

So far, he said, his company's New York sales are only about 10 per cent of what is normal for the holiday season.

"People are booking now for next Thanksgiving and next Christmas," he said.

Those who travel to New York from overseas will need to navigate and adhere to rules and vaccine requirements set by the state, the city and individual venues.

They will find that many venues and presenters, including Broadway theatres, the Met Opera, the New York Philharmonic, Lincoln Centre and Carnegie Hall, will admit travellers who show proof of having received one of the vaccines approved by the World Health Organisation - including AstraZeneca, Sinopharm and Sinovac, vaccines that have not been authorised for use in the US.

To help theatregoers prepare for their visit to Come From Away, the show recently released a health and safety video outlining what they can expect when they show up at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre.

Mr Heywood, meanwhile, had a plea for New Yorkers.

"Be nice to tourists," he said. "This is important."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2021, with the headline ''Be nice to tourists' plea as New York arts scene lures overseas visitors'. Subscribe