When will tourists return to New York?

Time Square almost completely empty in May, 2020.
Time Square almost completely empty in May, 2020.
Ricardo Luiz Antunes/Shutterstock
Time Square almost completely empty in May, 2020.

When will tourists return to New York?

NYC without selfie sticks is every New Yorker’s fantasy. It came true – and it hurts.
May 17, 2020

New York City without tourists is something many New Yorkers crammed onto crowded subway cars – or avoiding overrun attractions like Museum of Modern Art – may fantasize about now and then. This summer, it’s likely to be a reality, but it will probably hurt more New Yorkers than it helps. 

International flights to the United States have been largely restricted and reduced in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, while huge numbers of domestic flights have been canceled over the past two months. Anyone who has been reading the news or watching Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s daily press briefings knows that the New York City area – thanks in part to its status as a tourist hub – has had by far the worst coronavirus outbreak in the United States.

So tourism is unlikely to pick up in the coming summer months, resulting in untold lost income for New Yorkers and tax revenue for the city. 

Still, those who work in and study the tourism industry say that the pandemic isn’t the end of the tourism in New York. The question is not whether visitors will eventually return to New York, but how and when they can start to do so safely. “I'm pretty bullish on New York, and I think there are going to be some bright spots and you might have some glimmers of hope,” said Cristyne Nicholas, co-founder of Nicholas & Lence Communications and former chief executive and president of NYC & Company, the city’s official tourism arm. “But I think it's going to be a very slow turnaround.”

Tourism has been rising in New York for roughly a decade, since the end of the last recession, and during good economic times, it has been going up for several decades. NYC & Company reported 65 million visitors in 2018, and said last summer that the city was on track for nearly 67 million visitors in 2019, though official numbers have yet to be released. Naturally, spending by tourists has increased too. In 2018, direct spending by visitors to New York reached $46 billion.

The city’s tourism agency has not released any research on the impact of the pandemic on tourism this summer, saying it’s too soon to forecast. But Nicholas said June, July and August typically bring a lot of tourists, adding that many domestic tourists typically come in the summer. One study by the personal finance website WalletHub put New York as the ninth most-affected state for coronavirus-related decreases in tourism, just below Washington, D.C., and just above California. (Number one is Hawaii.) 

Virtually all businesses in New York City are hurting right now because of the pandemic-inflicted shutdown. The restaurants that tourists spend money in are closed or running only limited take-out and delivery service. Theaters, museums and other cultural attractions are entirely closed. Book stores, restaurants and even the Tenement Museum are closing permanently or at risk of doing so because of their sudden revenue drop. Four-star hotels, lacking customers, have turned into housing for exhausted health care workers. NYC & Company tracks monthly hotel occupancy, and the most recent data available is from March of this year. That month, just as the coronavirus outbreak intensified in New York, there was only 30.6% occupancy in city hotels. In March of 2019, hotels were at 84.4% capacity.

“I'm pretty bullish on New York. … But I think it's going to be a very slow turnaround.” – Cristyne Nicholas, former chief executive and president of NYC & Company

Tourism accounts directly for over 300,000 jobs in New York City, according to research from NYC & Company. Visitor-dependent businesses like tour guides or sightseeing companies have now had to lay off or furlough their employees. In late April, half of the staff of NYC & Company itself were furloughed for three months.

But interest in visiting New York in the long term doesn’t appear to be waning. Lori Pennington-Gray, the director of the Tourism Crisis Management Initiative at the University of Florida, has been surveying Americans on their anxieties about travel due to the coronavirus, and how the pandemic will affect future travel plans. The surveys have shown a few promising results for New York. The state is still a top-three destination for respondents, alongside California and Florida. And perhaps most surprisingly, when respondents were asked where they plan to visit first after travel restrictions are lifted, the fourth most popular category was big cities. (The most popular was the beach; the least popular was cruises.)

Pennington-Gray noted that the survey asks respondents how soon after the coronavirus is contained they expect to travel, and most said two to six months, or six months to one year. But containing the virus is not a simple goal. Will a testing-and-tracing system contain outbreaks? Or does nothing short of a vaccine ensure true containment? “We asked a question about how far away would things be back to normal, and most people are saying 2021 – and that's the new normal, not what we were used to,” Pennington-Gray said. “But people aren't expecting it to come back anytime soon.”

Without knowing when the coronavirus will be contained, there’s no telling exactly when tourism returns. Pennington-Gray said that when visitors do come back, it will likely be “drive tourism.” “As soon as it's contained, there should be some influx of tourism,” she said. “That's what we're finding nationally, that people are most likely going to stay closer to home and they're going to drive, it's going to be domestic. They're going to do things that are not in large crowds – open spaces, outdoors.”

Nicholas, who ran NYC & Company after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, is optimistic that some tourism can return sooner, depending on the type of visitor. “There are a lot of people in the tri-state area that can certainly come back and help. What we did right after 9/11, we weren't marketing right away to international visitors. We were first going to domestic (visitors),” she said, echoing Pennington-Gray’s prediction that in the early days, drive tourism will be predominant. “I don't see people rushing to the airports to go on flights right now.”

When talking about the return of tourism, it matters what kinds of tourists you’re talking about. Nicholas split potential travelers into three groups: first, younger Millennials who may feel less at risk from the virus; second, middle-aged people with families who will be cautious but want to continue to travel; and finally, older travelers. “The thing that in my opinion will take the biggest hit will be the Baby Boomer, older traveler,” Nicholas said. “That was very, very big and important because they had disposable income and they were also intrepid travelers.” In light of the higher risk of mortality from COVID-19 for people more than 60 years old, Nicholas said, “I think that group in particular is going to be super cautious.”

As Nicholas notes, the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus may inhibit travel even after the pandemic itself is over. “There are multiple factors that influence travel and one of them is discretionary income. We know that people have been hit hard,” Pennington-Gray said, adding that in a recent survey, the majority of respondents said their financial situation would impact future travel plans.

This summer, with movie theaters, amusement parks, and concerts all closed or canceled for the foreseeable future, well-heeled New Yorkers might be especially eager to get out of town. Some New Yorkers have already left the city, or plan to do so later this summer, leaving for vacation homes in coastal beach towns or for states whose economies are already reopening. Georgia, for example, has seen an influx in out-of-state visitors since businesses began reopening in late April. “I think they're already doing it,” Nicholas said of New Yorkers leaving the city for vacation, despite stay-at-home orders. “I think some of them already started to venture out, and out of the city, especially knowing that school is out.” 

Other New Yorkers may want to get out of New York City for the summer, but lack the means to do so. Now, with the city’s public pools closed, summer camps canceled and the opening of public beaches up in the air, it’s likely that the only people who will be able to cool off in a pool or catch a breeze by the water are those who can afford to vacation outside of New York City. 

But as travel does start to pick up again, public health experts say that people moving about – including the people traveling out of New York City this summer – risk carrying the virus elsewhere and infecting other people. Eleanor Murray, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the Boston University School of Public Health, told City & State that it’s not yet clear how many New Yorkers have been or are currently infected with COVID-19, but it is known that people can be infectious even if they don’t yet have symptoms. “It’s very likely that at least some New Yorkers who travel out of state or city will be infectious and carry the virus with them, and this is very likely to spread the outbreak,” Murray wrote over email. 

It’s not surprising then, that well-off New Yorkers leaving the city for a second home in regions like the Catskills and the Hamptons have provoked outrage from locals who worry about their community’s resources to fight an outbreak. “The best evidence suggests that on average each person with SARS-CoV-2 infects between two and five other people, which means that even one person who is infectious can potentially start an outbreak in an area that hasn’t had one yet,” Murray wrote. 

One group of upstaters that isn’t unhappy, though, is real estate agents. Some New Yorkers, sick of cramped quarantine situations and desperate for a backyard, are now searching for homes in areas such as the Hudson Valley – and some suburban and upstate real estate brokers have been flooded with business. 

If visitors did come to New York City in the medium-term future for a trip or vacation, they too would be in danger of contracting the virus and bringing it home with them. “Tourists or visitors to New York are absolutely at risk of infection. We don’t yet have a very reliable test to tell who has been infected in the past, and we don’t know how long immunity might last for those who were previously infected, largely because this virus is very new,” Murray said. 

So how can tourism safely return to New York? Pennington-Gray and Nicholas said businesses in each sector of the tourism industry are already talking about the “new normal.” It will involve reduced capacity at hotels, social distancing at all the businesses that tourists frequent. “There's different phases that people will come back, but they're not going to come back until they know that they've done what they need to do to keep the visitor safe as well,” Pennington-Gray said.

Nicholas suggested that businesses will want to open, even if they’re doing less business. “I think tourism businesses are just going to try to survive with whoever they can,” she said. “I believe that if they can open, they will. And even if they will only get 35% to 50% of the business, the market will meet the demand.”

As for public health measures short of a vaccine that could help make travel safer, Murray said that more robust testing – along with fastidious hygiene and distancing measures – could help. “Over the next few months, I expect that we will get better antibody tests and a better understanding of COVID immunity,” she wrote over email. “These, combined with testing for active infection and contact tracing will make travel safer for people coming into and out of New York – but only if people obey any quarantine and isolation orders they may be given.”

Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.
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