New York’s great tourism leap

OK, quickly name America’s top tourist destination.

Orlando, Fla.? Las Vegas? The Grand Canyon?

Try New York.

By New Year’s Eve, New York expected to have made history by snaring more than 50 million tourists in one year, considerably surpassing a deadline that Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg set early in his administration for 2015 and then moved up to the end of 2012.

When it became clear that the city would come in a year ahead of schedule, Bloomberg staged a media event just before Christmas in Times Square with balloons and billboards and a couple of smiling Brits.

But if Bloomberg wanted unstaged testimony for this New York success story, he could have turned to Brian and Mellie Jenkins and their two teenage daughters, who were bundled up against the cold one day as they ate trendy sandwiches on a park bench in the East Village.


“The girls think we’re so cool for taking them to Tompkins Square Park,” said Brian, 56, a lawyer and closet foodie from Illinois who brings his family to New York annually for the week between Christmas and New Year’s, the city’s busiest tourist season.

Jaded East Villagers, wearing black scarves and smirks, couldn’t help but stare at the tall, blond family in heavy parkas tucking into what might be considered only-in-New York sandwiches. Brian and Mellie had chicken liver, bacon and onions packed between two pieces of challah, which they were clearly embarrassed to admit appeared on the take-out menu as “The Conflicted Jew,” while their daughters tried to get their hands around the “The Almighty Brisket” — with cheddar cheese, horseradish and mayo on a Brioche bun.

Daphne, 17, and Lily, 15, were hungry and a tad grumpy after waiting three hours in line for Dad’s favorite view on top of the Empire State Building. But they were also eager for the next stop — Brooklyn’s hip Williamsburg neighborhood, where they hoped to shop for vintage clothes.

Brian said he didn’t get the “vintage clothes thing,” but he was game to go anywhere in New York.

“Really, the whole city feels more and more tourist-friendly every year,” he said.

Bloomberg couldn’t have said it better himself. Not that he hasn’t tried — relentlessly, in fact, since getting elected in 2002.

At $47 billion a year, tourism has grown to be New York’s fifth-largest industry and the fastest-growing sector of its economy, which the mayor has said softened the effects of the Great Recession on the city. Tourism dropped 3% in 2009, but picked right up again and now is responsible for 320,000 jobs.

It helped that dozens of new hotels sprouted in all five boroughs, many in Manhattan’s old Garment District, so that the city now has 90,000 rooms with another 7,000 in the pipeline. The average hotel stay costs $314 a night.

Statistics from 2010, the last full year for which numbers are available, stand out. Not only was New York America’s most popular destination, outpacing Orlando in domestic travelers, but the city also accounted for 33% of all overseas travel to the United States.

Together, Los Angeles and Miami — the second and third most popular destinations — got fewer foreign visitors in 2010 than New York did.

Although international travelers accounted for only a fourth of the tourists who came to New York that year, on average they spent $1,700 and stayed 7.3 days. Domestic travelers spent an average $432 and stayed 2.7 days.

Chris McGinnis, a travel correspondent and consultant based in San Francisco, said many factors went into New York’s heightened popularity.

“There’s the weak dollar and the influx of lower-priced hotels, which make New York more accessible to American tourists,” he said. “So they can stay in a Best Western or Holiday Inn and have the whole Manhattan experience. In the past you’d have to stay far out in the boroughs to get a hotel within the ballpark of someone who is not on business.”

Even the mayor’s harshest critics credit Bloomberg, the billionaire businessman who runs the city by the numbers, with helping New York corner the market by reinventing the city’s tourist operation. Five years ago he created NYC & Company, an independent but city-funded agency that operates like a typically rapacious Manhattan marketing/public relations firm.

George Fertitta, a former Madison Avenue executive whom Bloomberg recruited to run the agency, is so comfortable with success that he didn’t even show up at that Times Square shindig to ballyhoo the 50-millionth visitor. He was on a family vacation — in Paris.

“Paris is a spectacularly beautiful city,” Fertitta mused during a phone interview, “but really, it has none of the energy and vibrancy of New York. Really.”

When Fertitta, 65, took over in 2006, he was given $106 million over five years to sell the city. The firm overhauled the website, changed the logo, found corporate sponsors, added 18 offices abroad and dozens of new celebrity pitchmen, including Robert DeNiro, for an ad campaign.

Now for every dollar NYC & Company gets from the city, it raises one on its own, and the city just re-upped with $65 million for another five years.

Fertitta said that crucial to the turnaround was keeping track of who wanted to come to New York and why. So when his operation sniffed out that middle-class Brazilians were flocking to the city and they loved Broadway, NYC & Company dreamed up a plan to send actors from five Broadway shows to perform in Sao Paulo to lure tourists. American Airlines paid the fares and the Broadway League helped organize.

The tourism arm also negotiated with the U.S. Embassy there to make its visa operation easier.

“We’re cheerleaders, but we also try to help connect the dots,” Fertitta said. “We can never do enough on that level.”

He also has an aggressive media operation that any politician would envy. Days after New York legalized same-sex marriage, Fertitta’s team began promoting “NYC I DO” to encourage gays to tie the knot here.

How did New York steal business from Orlando? The tourism arm established “Smurf Week” and put up dozens of family-friendly and free events on its website. What did the travel operation do when ash from an Icelandic volcano stranded travelers in New York? It strong-armed hotels to cut rates by 15% until the dust settled.

Despite the shadow of terrorist attacks, New York’s glamorous image remains a constant draw. Fertitta clearly loves to repeat the story about the Chinese reporters who, when he opened an office in Shanghai, grilled him about Carrie Bradshaw and the girls from “Sex and the City.”

“There were hundreds of reporters, most of them women, and all they wanted to know was if every American woman was like Carrie and had thousands of shoes,” he said, laughing.