New York sees a record number of tourists despite talk of travel ban

New York City welcomed a record 62.8 million tourists in 2017, up 2.3 million, or 3.8 percent, from 2016.
New York City welcomed a record 62.8 million tourists in 2017, up 2.3 million, or 3.8 percent, from 2016.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Despite the Trump administration's proposed travel ban and immigration restrictions, New York City welcomed a record 62.8 million tourists in 2017, up 2.3 million, or 3.8 percent, from 2016.

The figures were released by the city's tourism bureau, NYC & Co., which said that 79.1 percent of the visitors came from the United States, while the rest came from other countries. The 13.1 million visitors from abroad was also a record. The highest tally was from the United Kingdom, as has been the case for years. China ranked No. 2 for a second year, and Canada No. 3.

A year ago, the agency predicted a drop of 300,000 tourists, including a decline in foreign visitors. Fred Dixon, president and chief executive of NYC & Co., said then that the administration's protectionist policies and America first rhetoric had changed the way travellers viewed the United States when they were making their plans.

In November, NYC & Co. raised its projections for 2017, but the actual totals exceeded even those figures. Dixon said Tuesday that international travel - which represents about 20 percent of the total number of visitors but 50 percent of the spending - "began to trend up" in the third quarter of 2017.

That increase, he said, contributed to the city's record-setting total. Nationally, by contrast, there was a 4 percent drop in international visitors to the United States in the first half of 2017, according to Commerce Department figures.

"It's difficult to explain the role of politics," Dixon said. "I think people are becoming numb to everything in the news every day. For international travellers, if there's one thing we've learned, travel is almost a right. We think they're looking beyond the politics." He is forecasting that the upward trend will continue this year, at least for New York City, with a 3.7 percent increase in visitors, for another record total of 65.1 million.

Those numbers mean big money for the city's economy. Dixon said a domestic traveller spends US$500 (S$658) on average while in New York. A foreign traveller spends US$2,000, in part because foreign travellers account for 50 percent of the hotel-room nights booked in a year. The average price of a hotel room in New York City was US$277 a night last year, according to NYC & Co.

Some 4,000 new hotel rooms were added to the city's inventory last year, pushing the total to almost 116,500 rooms. But occupancy was still relatively high at 87 percent, according to NYC & Co. It said the total for room-nights sold last year was 36.4 million, a record and 1.6 million more than in 2016.

NYC & Co. spent much of last year trying to counter the sense that tourists were not welcome in the United States. "After the inauguration, when the talk started about a travel ban, it had an immediate impact on people's sentiments," Dixon said.

Early last year, he said, internet search metrics showed that online searches in foreign countries were declining for key words that could be travel-related, like "United States" and "New York." "We took that as a canary in the coal mine," he said, and the agency launched an advertising and marketing campaign valued at US$3.2 million that was aimed at foreign markets. Later in the year, the agency began a second campaign valued at US$15.6 million. It used the slogan "True York City" and promoted tourism beyond places in the city that tourists might normally visit.

NYC & Co. also worked during 2017 to add city-to-city partnerships with Cape Town, South Africa; Tokyo; and Toronto, where the school system had stopped planning field trips to the United States amid concerns that some students were being turned away at the border.

"We said, 'We want you to know these federal policies don't represent our values in New York,'" Dixon explained.

The Toronto school board relaxed its restrictions a bit last month, allowing students to travel to the United States for competitions. The chairwoman, Robin Pilkey, said at the time that the trustees believed "students' educational opportunities were being significantly impacted" by restricting travel for competitions.

As for the partnership with Mexico City, "It was related to talk about the wall," Dixon said.

"Mexicans were feeling ostracised," he said, and the city could not afford to lose them. "They're big consumers of the arts. They're big shoppers. We thought it was a great moment to go in and say, 'This rhetoric is not New York. We value you, and you'll always be welcome here.'"