New York City’s bustling tourism industry is continuing to rebuild following the challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
In March 2020, tourism in the city basically turned off overnight. Attractions shut down, Broadway closed its curtains, and many local businesses in popular tourist neighborhoods also closed their doors. No one was truly prepared for what was going to happen throughout the Five Boroughs.
“We thought it was another crisis that we were going to quickly navigate through. To be honest, we had no sense of the long-term nature that this would take. We had no idea that this would be a prolonged crisis,” said Chris Heywood, EVP, Global Communications at NYC & Company. “We had no anticipation of that, we thought it was going to be short-term when we saw things getting bad, we thought in June 2020 things would be back to normal.”
“It came on so quickly in Broadway, we literally started to hear about it one week and we shut down the next week. People were beginning to cancel their tickets and wanted exchanges and refunds,” said Charlotte St. Martin, President of The Broadway League. “I don’t think it was even in New York or New York State, it was still a west coast problem. In one week [New York City] became the center of the COVID.”
Organizations like NYC & Company and The Broadway League sprang into action, coming up with ways to keep employees, performers and tourists alike safe amid the outbreak. It was a stark difference than it was the year prior — in 2019, NYC & Company found that New York City reached peak tourism numbers with 66.6 million visitors, from both domestic and international travelers. What was once a generator for jobs and revenue for the city was gone in an instant.
Fast forward to 2022, and New York City’s tourism has continued to bounce back, with many more in-person experiences reopening to the public (though many virtual options are still readily available). Small businesses associated with the tourism industry, like local restaurants, have suffered the most, according to Heywood, and NYC & Company is working to help give those businesses a much-needed boost.
“Tourism is a five borough phenomenon, a lot of those small businesses throughout the city were really devastated. Our hotels, restaurants, everyone was devastated,” said Heywood. “I think from iconic institutions and hotels to small businesses, but there seems to be more pain and suffering among the small businesses. That’s something that we’re really trying to create more opportunities for in our recovery.”
New York City as a whole has seen a gradual return to tourism, most of which is driven by domestic travelers. With every new variant, tourism took some sort of hit. Things for full-force ahead until the Omicron variant, which caused the light of tourism to switch off once more.
Regardless, the city is bouncing back at an astounding rate in 2022, compared to where New York City was this time two years ago.
“It’s fascinating to see the city come alive at the pace that it has, I think it’s been a ferocious reawakening. You see the foot traffic on weekends really going up. You see restaurants filling up, and with hotels, we’ve seen numbers over the last four weeks have gone up,” said Heywood. “The week ending on Jan. 29 was at 42% occupancy, and the week ending Feb. 26 rose to 61.6% occupancy. You can see in almost a month period, less than a month, occupancy ticked up almost 20%. That’s significant, that shows you the staying power of a place like New York City and the pent-up demand that’s going to be realized.”
On the flip side, Broadway has come back with a bang and only a few brief shutdowns during the outbreak of the Omicron variant.
“We were very pleasantly surprised with the pent-up demand when we opened in September and continued to get growth. Before omicron, we were averaging on a weekly basis 85% percent in the seats in our theaters occupied, even when we had 35 shows running at the same time. Last week, we had 92% of all seats filled for the 19 shows that we’re running,” said St. Martin. “We have served over 4 million theatergoers since we opened last fall. We anticipate that continuing to be a little up, a little down, but we anticipate over 85% of the seats filled before this season ends on May 22.”
Broadway currently has 19 shows running with 16 more set to open in the coming weeks, and with vaccination and mask mandates put in place for theatergoers, Broadway is seeing a steady comeback.
“We were very pleasantly surprised with how many theatergoers bought their tickets once we required vaccines and masks,” said St. Martin. “We really didn’t know what would happen, but what happened was people wanted to know if they were sitting in a room with someone who was vaccinated and had their mask on.”
As New York City continues to recover, mask and vaccination mandates put in place by the city have since been lifted, with businesses still having the option to uphold mandates independently. Broadway will continue to uphold mandates through April, and will give a month’s notice before any updates in that regard.
“We said from day one that the most important thing to us was to keep the cast crew and audience safe, and that still is the case. And it has worked because of those 4 million theatergoers, we’ve never been accused of creating COVID or being a super spreader and it’s because we’ve been super conservative,” said St. Martin. “We have a protocols committee made up of theater representatives who make the decision based on the latest scientific evidence. I think everybody would love to quit wearing the mask but they’d also like to be safe, so ideally we’ll feel comfortable and be able to list some of those protocols by May 1, but we don’t know yet.”
Regardless, Heywood believes that the lifting of mandates can be helpful for New York City’s tourism as a whole by giving people permission to travel again.
“Every milestone in our recovery signals to visitors and consumers that it’s okay to travel again. I think these serve as ways to give people permission to go on with their lives, to have a sense of normalcy. Once they have that permission, so to speak, to travel again and do the things they want the world is their oyster and New York City is the perfect destination,” said Heywood. “There’s going to be a transition between now and maybe a couple of months where organizations will continue to require [vaccines and masks]. I think the lifting of these restrictions is a psychological milestone for people that really gives them that permission to proceed with travel. Which many have not been able to do for two years.”
It may be some time before tourism reaches the heights it had reached prior to the pandemic. NYC & Company projects that 85% of the peak visitation in 2019 will return with 56.6 million visitors by the end of 2022, which will be led by a strong domestic market of 48.4 million travelers and 8.1 million international visitors. The organization predicts that a full rebound for international and business travel will take longer but is within reach in 2024 and 2025.
However, Broadway bouncing back as strongly as it has, things are certainly looking up.
“Broadway and New York City tourism are tied together, 80% of the people who come to New York for pleasure list Broadway as the #1 or #2 reason for coming to the city,” said St. Martin. “We are important to the city and the city’s tourism efforts are critical to our success.”
One thing is for sure, those who are betting against New York City will be sorely mistaken.
“Anyone who wants to write the obituary for New York City is not gonna be successful. We’ve seen that happen during the pandemic, people moved away, people bet against New York, and that’s not a wise thing to do because New York always comes back,” said Heywood. “New York City is resilient, and I do think this is going to be the year of NYC, the year of recovery. I think two years has been a long time for people. Vaccination rates are high, we beat this virus back, I think people are ready to move forward, and they’re ready to live.”