New York reinvents travel with new attractions and vaccine mandates, while marking Sept 11

The Big Apple is making a big push to relaunch itself as a tourism destination.
The Big Apple is making a big push to relaunch itself as a tourism destination.PHOTOS: NYC & COMPANY, AFP

NEW YORK - There are few cities as storied as New York - and few as heavily touristed, with 66.6 million visitors thronging its streets in 2019, an all-time record.

Fourteen million of them were international travellers, for whom it was the eighth most popular spot in the world, and the top American destination.

But all that changed when the pandemic hit last year. And it hit New York City, a hot spot for Covid-19 cases and deaths, especially hard.

Pre-pandemic, tourism here accounted for US$46 billion (S$62 billion) in spending and some 280,000 jobs. Almost 90,000 jobs and U$35 billion of those receipts vanished last year.

Millions of residents moved out of the city as well - something self-help author James Altucher drew attention to in a viral blog post provocatively titled, "New York City is dead forever... here's why".

It prompted indignant counter-arguments from another long-time New Yorker, comedian Jerry Seinfeld, and sparked a debate about the city's future that rages on today.

And last week's catastrophic flooding from Hurricane Ida only provides more grist for the doomsayers.

But existential crises aside, the Big Apple is making a big push to relaunch itself as a tourism destination. And as it marks the 20th anniversary of the Sept 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center this Saturday, many are hoping the iconic city can rise from the ashes once again.

In April, NYC & Company - its official tourism and marketing organisation - unveiled NYC Reawakens, a communications initiative, along with a US$30-million global marketing campaign to bring tourists back.

The goal, said Mayor Bill de Blasio, is "to show travellers that New York City is not only ready to host them, it's also creating a better and more vibrant city than ever before".

Speaking to The Straits Times, NYC & Company's executive vice-president for global communications, Mr Christopher Heywood, says the city has had to recalibrate its approach to visitors.

Earlier this year, "it was time for us to think about turning a corner because we had been in crisis mode for so long".

"And we were not really able to invite visitors into the city from outside the region until our quarantine requirements were lifted in early April and things started to get back on track."


The city is luring visitors back with a full calendar of cultural offerings. PHOTO: NYC & COMPANY


The Big Apple is making a big push to relaunch itself as a tourism destination. PHOTO: NYC & COMPANY

The tourism outlook seemed sunnier for a few months after this, but in July, the rise of the Delta variant "started to become concerning to a lot of people, and this affected consumer sentiment and travel behaviour", Mr Heywood says.

But he believes there are reasons for optimism moving forward.

The city is luring visitors back with a full calendar of cultural offerings, including the long-awaited reopening of Broadway this month, when most shows will resume.

These will be the first performances since theatres were forced to close in March last year.

Other returning events include the United States Open Tennis Championships and New York Fashion Week, both happening this month.


Returning events include the US Open Tennis Championships. PHOTO: AFP

And the New York City Marathon will resume in November with reduced capacity - "all of which is a big signal to people that it is safe to come and New York City is open for business", Mr Heywood says.

The spotlight is also being turned on the city's expanded outdoor dining scene, initially conceived as a way to reduce indoor transmission of the virus but now a lively addition to the experience of eating out in New York.

There have also been moves to reduce congestion by encouraging visitors to spread out and explore all five boroughs, not just Manhattan and Brooklyn.

And there are brand-new attractions such as Little Island, a futuristic public park on the Hudson River.


Little Island, a futuristic public park on the Hudson River. PHOTO: SIGNE NIELSEN


Little Island, a futuristic public park on the Hudson River. PHOTO: SIGNE NIELSEN

But the centrepiece of the city's efforts to get visitors to come back is, arguably, a somewhat controversial new law it has just introduced, which requires proof of vaccination to enter restaurants, theatres, museums, gyms and other indoor spaces.

One of the strictest vaccine mandates in the country, it went into effect on Aug 17 and will become fully enforceable starting next Monday.

Because of this, Mr Heywood thinks New York City "is really being seen as one of the safest places to be as we come out of this pandemic".

"One of the hallmarks of a visit here will be a feeling of safety from a public-health perspective," he says.

"The recovery has been led by arts and culture, and if you're going to be indoors to see a fabulous exhibit or a musical on Broadway, you can be assured that the people around you will be vaccinated.

"And in some cases, they will still be masked, like in Broadway theatres."

Prominent restaurateurs and chefs such as David Burke are backing the mandate.

"It will keep the restaurant industry from being shut down again and will give the public a sense of security when dining out, which will encourage more people to do so," he said at a press conference last month. "So I think it'll be good for business."


The centrepiece of New York City's efforts to get visitors to come back is, arguably, a somewhat controversial new law it has just introduced, which requires proof of vaccination to enter restaurants, theatres, museums, gyms and other indoor spaces. PHOTO: NYTIMES

Tourism numbers are not expected to reach pre-pandemic levels till 2024 or 2025.

The city expects some 36.1 million visitors this year, or about half of what it saw in 2019. "So it's going to take a while for the city's tourism industry to recover," Mr Heywood says, adding that while hotel demand is growing, international business travel and the meetings and convention sector may take a bit longer to bounce back.

But as a long-time resident of the city himself, the 47-year-old is hopeful.

"I live in the West Village, and when you walk the streets on the weekend, there are lines out the door to get into some restaurants.

"As a New Yorker, it's really incredible to see New York coming back. You feel the energy, the vibrancy, our diversity and our welcoming spirit in full play.

"And I think people look to New York and want to see it thrive."

He also lives around the corner from the famous "Friends apartment building", which was used in exterior shots on the hit sitcom.

"I saw hardly anyone there during the pandemic so I knew business was down. But as the city has reopened, I'm seeing more people gawking at it and taking selfies. That, to me, is a good sign."