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And Another Fifty Million People Just Got Off of the Plane

Year after year, our most loyal foreign customers are the British. Roughly one out of ten international visitors to New York come from the United Kingdom. The British arrival numbers, says Fertitta, “pretty closely track the pound.” In 2008, when the pound and the dollar traded at two to one, “we saw a spark in visitation of over 1.3 million. So a weak dollar actually helps support travel into the United States.” Bloomberg, interestingly enough, has a different reading: “If it was [just] the weak dollar, you would see a big expansion of tourism in all other port cities in the U.S. And there’s some, but nowhere near ours. So there’s gotta be something else.” It’s true. With the yen at record highs against the dollar, one would expect an uptick in Japanese travel to the more convenient West Coast. But our share of Japanese tourism actually rose from 7.4 to 8.9 percent in 2010, growing faster than that of San Francisco and Los Angeles.

A newly booming foreign economy can suddenly drive whole nations’ worth of travelers here. For a time in the middle to late aughts, the Irish, propelled by the so-called Celtic Tiger boom, were flooding New York. “They would fly in for a new iPhone,” says Fertitta. “Young women would say, ’What do you want to do this weekend? Let’s go shopping in New York!’ ” Since the 2008 financial crisis, NYC & Company has been eager to identify the next Ireland. In 2010, they found it, unexpectedly enough, in Brazil. As their economy grew like never before, middle-class Brazilians abandoned traditional vacation destinations like Argentina for New York. NYC & Company quickly influenced American Airlines to create discount fares. After observing the Brazilians’ consumer behavior and realizing they are disproportionately taken with Broadway theater, NYC & Company sent five musicals to São Paulo. “Nobody’s paying for anything—AA is flying them in,” says Fertitta, practically giddy. Between 2009 and 2010 alone, the number of Brazilian tourists in the city increased by an incredible 77 percent. And the typical Brazilian drops $415 a day here, about double the international average.

This year, the fastest-growing market, as it is in almost every other industry, is China. Between January and August, Chinese travel to New York was up 37 percent. This boomlet, however, is proving harder to monetize. Because China has a difficult visa regime, Chinese tourists tend to cram as much as they can into a U.S. trip, in case there’s no next time. “They’re traveling the way Americans did to Europe in the sixties and seventies—fifteen cities in fifteen days,” says one NYC & Company employee. “They fly into D.C. for a day, see the Washington Monument, get on the bus, drive here, stay across the river in New Jersey, and come into the city for the iconic sites.” The Wall Street bull sculpture, oddly enough, has somehow become a must on this itinerary. Of the myriad hands that have buffed its brass testicles to their present shine, a disproportionate number are Chinese.

Stateside, the picture is simpler. For all the planes landing at our airports and cruise ships docking in our harbors, 57 percent of New York’s more than 39 million domestic visitors this year will come from within five hours’ driving distance of the city. In fact, 30 percent hail from the state of New York, and 41 percent from the New York metro area. Our tourists, in many cases, are our neighbors.

The Mayor and I are finishing breakfast. I ask him about the downsides to our increased dependence on tourism. Let’s say the dollar bounces back against the pound, the yen, and the euro. Let’s say Disney World stages a fire sale. Let’s say the crime rate rises just enough to generate headlines about the Bronx burning again. Let’s say (and hope not) there is another terrorist attack. How solid is the foundation we’ve built here? Is there a danger to being hooked on tourism?

Bloomberg insists there is not. He clearly subscribes to the “superstar city” economic theory, which holds that in a sufficiently globalized marketplace, there will always be a customer for places like New York. On this subject, he is an unabashed booster. What about the economic problems in Greece and Italy? “They may even help a little bit! Some people might not want to go to those countries while they’re in turmoil.” Have we built too many hotels? “That’s what capitalism is all about. If there are [too many], the number will shrink.”

Of course, there’s a darker view. Although data on the subject is difficult to come by (several top urban economists I spoke to hadn’t even thought about the problem), it stands to reason that if hot foreign economies, favorable exchange rates, and the like lift the tourist economy, then their converse will drive it down. During the slump of 1989–94, hotel occupancy dropped to 71 percent. No one expects a return to the bad old days of 2,000 murders a year, but if the local economy falters and the crime rate edges upward, the prettied-up playground we’ve built could revert to being at least somewhat less attractive to visitors.

Then, of course, there is NYC & Company itself, the embodiment of Bloomberg’s gigantic tourism marketing push. The company’s original five-year contract with the city came up this summer, and City Hall reinvested in it ($66 million over five years this time). But it’s anyone’s guess whether the next mayor will consider the aggressive branding and marketing of New York around the world as much a priority as Bloomberg has. It is not inconceivable that after the next administration takes office, the New York brand will have to coast for a while. When I ask the mayor if the Greatest Product in the World can be sustained on momentum alone, Bloomberg smiles. “My job is to sustain it for the next 781 days.”


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