The number of visitors to New York City fell last year for the first time since 2001 when terrorists struck. But tourism declines elsewhere across the U.S. made it the most popular destination in the country for the first time in almost two decades, tourism officials said Monday.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg painted the 3.9 percent decline — an estimated 45.3 million visitors — as a victory, saying that amid the recession the city had anticipated losing as much as 10 percent of tourists. The city expects to recoup most of the loss this year and remains on track to hit its longstanding goal of 50 million yearly visitors by 2012, the mayor said.
Other hot spots were hit harder, making New York America's No. 1 destination for the first time since 1990, the mayor said. For nearly two decades that title was held by either Las Vegas or Orlando.
"We have made our city cleaner, safer and more exciting than ever," Bloomberg said at a press conference at a Brooklyn restaurant. "I do think we'll continue to see even more tourists on our streets as the economy improves, and I think that we'll continue to fare better than other cities."
While many travelers stayed home simply because money was tight, the mayor also attributed the decline in international visitors to swine flu fears and concerns over border security measures.
Foreign visitors — traditionally the biggest spenders — fell to 8.6 million in 2009, a drop of almost 10 percent from the year before. That echoed a milder national trend, with international visitors to the U.S. down 7 percent in the first 10 months of the year compared to the same period the year before.
Still, some attractions, including the Statue of Liberty, reported jumps in visitation. And the city's leisure and hospitality industry — which provides one-tenth of the city's private sector jobs — actually grew in 2009.
The decline in visitors was modest partly because the city's hotels offered deep discounts, with some dropping rates by as much as 40 percent, said Bjorn Hanson, a professor at New York University's Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism and Sports Management.
"The lodging industry really is using discounting to stimulate demand," he said, adding that the price drops have significantly boosted "the city's ability to maintain the level of tourism that it's had."
While the final numbers aren't in, Hanson estimates that New York City hotels dropped their average daily rate about 29 percent to between $200 and $235 last year. In a city where even mid-range hotels often have an initial investment of $500,000 per room, the discounting has come with a price.
Of the city's hotels, "more than half will not be able to meet their debt service obligations in total this year," Hanson said.