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And Another Fifty Million People Just Got Off of the Plane

Even in this economic climate, by the time New Year’s Eve rolls around, the city should have hit a milestone: the greatest number of annual tourists ever. But how do you say “bubble” in Portuguese?

Memory Lane by Peter Funch, from the 2008 series "Babel Tales," which focuses on human relations in cities.  

Let me know when the tree goes up,” says Michael Bloomberg, salting the jam on his English muffin. The mayor and I are at the Rock Center Café, looking onto the ice rink. Above the skaters, a crane hoists a Norway spruce roughly the size of King Kong. In moments, it will officially become the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, one of New York’s most beloved tourist attractions. Hundreds of people have gathered around, snapping pictures. More arrive each minute, drawn across the plaza from the spectacle of the Today show. Just then, a flash goes off next to us. A tourist wants a picture of Bloomberg. “Get into the shot,” he tells her, politely if without particular warmth. “Get into the shot, and let’s get this over with.”

“Part of my job is tourism,” Bloomberg says once the photo op is over. “ ‘Hi, how are you, welcome to New York.’ You gotta make people feel happy.” That is, if anything, an understatement. Luring people to New York to spend their euros, reals, and yen is one of the Bloomberg administration’s signature initiatives and outsize success stories. As we talk, Bloomberg at times comes across less like a mayor and more like the president of some giant Chamber of Commerce. It is clear that the happy commotion outside the café windows has been part of his vision all along: New York as a luxury good enjoyed by all the world.

And that vision has largely come true. This year, barring some unexpected hiccup over the next few weeks, New York will have played host—for the first time in its history—to 50 million tourists. (In 2002, when Bloomberg took office, that number was just a hair above the ten-year nadir of 35.2 million.) Not only does tourism, at $47 billion a year, make up a bigger slice of the city’s economy (7.36 percent) than ever before, but it is now New York’s fifth-largest industry, ahead of media and fashion and many of the wonderful things that actually bring tourism here. Tourism is the city’s fastest economic-growth sector and a major reason the post-Lehman recession wasn’t much worse here. In 2010, hospitality was one of the few industries in the city to gain jobs. That same year, amid global economic gloom, New York quietly sucked up almost 33 percent of all overseas travel to the U.S.—more than L.A. and Miami combined—and overtook Orlando as the No. 1 domestic-city travel destination for the first time in twenty years. The tourism industry currently supports 320,000 jobs in the city, 6,500 more than last year. We have gone from 72,625 hotel rooms in 2006 to 90,000 today—a 24 percent increase in five years. At two people per room, we are now capable of housing full stadiums of Jets, Mets, and Yankees fans in one night. (No wonder hotel workers were the only union to back Bloomberg’s third-term bid.) “In this recession, the country lost 6 percent of private-sector jobs and got about a quarter back,” Bloomberg says. “New York City lost 0.3 percent and got them all back. Why? Because we have the option to use tourism to replace growth.”

The question, of course, is whether that option can sustain growth. With the U.S. economy still sluggish, Europe flirting with one economic crisis after another, and even the Chinese juggernaut slowing down, our tourism figures are looking downright miraculous. Or, if you’re a pessimist, a lot like a bubble.

The offices of NYC & Company, at 810 Seventh Avenue, are a Bloombergian open-plan playpen that seems more like a tech start-up than home to the city’s tourism brain trust. Inside, 155 staffers divided into thirteen units, some working around the clock in shifts, are busy doing one thing: selling New York.

NYC & Company is not a city agency, although it has city DNA. Dreamed up by Bloomberg and his former deputy Dan Doctoroff, it is formally a 501(c)6 nonprofit corporation. In effect, however, NYC & Company is a large, full-service marketing, public-relations, and advertising agency whose main source of funding and sole client happens to be the city. The company in its present form appeared in June 2006, when the mayor merged two underperforming city agencies, NYC Marketing and NYC Big Events, with a traditional visitors bureau composed of hoteliers and restaurateurs and run by alleged Giuliani fling Cristyne Nicholas. On paper, Bloomberg got rid of two agencies; in reality, he created a kind of superagency free from the bureaucratic confines of City Hall. To head this new outfit, Bloomberg called on George Fertitta, a Madison Avenue veteran whose firm, Margeotes Fertitta & Partners, had been billing a broad roster of clients up to $250 million a year. Fertitta, an amiable gentleman with white hair just long enough to be too long for a city-government hack, had just sold his company and was looking for a legacy gig. Here was one for the ages: “Selling the greatest product in the world” is how he puts it.

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