For the first holiday season since the 2001 terrorist attacks, tourists are pouring into New York in near-record numbers, packing hotel rooms and eating out in droves.
“Things are booming,” said Tim Zagat, who publishes the Zagat restaurant surveys. “The biggest problem is getting into things you want to get into — hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, theaters.”
Cristyne Nicholas, head of the city’s tourism agency, said this holiday season is the first since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in which the city has experienced “true growth” in tourism.
Although visitors from out of town now walk the packed sidewalks under the watchful eyes of heavily armed anti-terrorism teams, Nicholas said, “people feel good about coming to New York and they feel more secure about spending with the economy looking up. There’s a renewed sense of optimism.”
Tourism officials expect the total number of tourists this year to at least match the 35 million recorded in 2002 — and possibly come close to the record 36.2 million who came in 2000.
By year’s end, hotel occupancy will reach 84 percent, close to peak pre-attack levels, Nicholas predicted. Lower prices are an incentive, with a room’s average nightly cost of $216 — $55 less than during the 2000 holiday season.
A Zagat survey shows that when it comes to eating out at least half of 29,000 diners polled said they are spending more money per meal now than in the months before September 2001.
“Those who didn’t get fired from Wall Street are having a very good year,” Zagat said. “Entertaining has skyrocketed since last year. People are saying, ’Let’s go out and have a good time again.”’
Biggest boost comes from families
The biggest boost in any single group of tourists since 2001 came from families, who are expected to represent about 11 million visitors this year.
Some hotels are attracting families by offering baby-sitting services and kids’ programs. The Plaza, for instance, has a session that teaches children etiquette while they’re served tea.
The city also has created an ad campaign with a cartoon rabbit named Miffy, which extols traditional New York sites from pretzels to the Statue of Liberty.
“New York is the safest large city in America. It’s family friendly,” said Nicholas, pointing to the city’s low crime rate in recent years.
One important segment remains vulnerable. Foreign tourism, although energized by the cheap dollar, still lags behind pre-attack levels. Tourism officials hope to exceed the 5.1 million tourists from foreign countries recorded last year — but that’s still quite short of the 6.8 million who visited in 2000.
For adults, “the city that never sleeps” offers such attractions as guided night walks through Central Park — by foot or rickshaw cab — and private jazz tours, with club-hopping into the wee hours. Jazz expert Gordon Polatnick takes clients to venues ranging from the famed Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village to the basement of an American Legion post in Harlem where jazz is produced from an old Hammond organ and unknown but passionate musicians.
Central Park night crawlers are advised to bring along a flashlight, said guide Eric Stein, for a tour that includes “the darkest 37 acres” of the park — The Ramble, an almost untouched patch of Manhattan wildlife.
The bread-and-butter of the New York tourist scene is still the age-old favorites: holiday shopping, seeing the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall or taking in a Broadway show.
But now, the World Trade Center site is on many tourists’ list of places to visit. Vendors hawk goods — from twin-towers snow globes to New York baseball caps — while visitors stand in silent tribute by the 16 acres of ground zero that was at the heart of the nation’s tragedy.
From there, looking north, tourists also can see the stalwart of the Manhattan skyline: the Empire State Building. It spire, like much of New York these days, is decked out in red and green lights.