As tourism brightens, Times Square hopes to regain luster
NEW YORK - David Cohen has been yearning for a return to the days when business boomed at his family's souvenir shop in Times Square.
While tourists have begun returning, foot traffic into Grand Slam souvenirs is still not what it was before the coronavirus pandemic, when hordes of global visitors crowded under the canopy of electric billboards just outside his door.
But the return of foreign tourists to a place popularly called the crossroads of the world may help hasten recovery for businesses like his — many of them mom-and-pop shops — that collectively employ thousands of people and serve as one of New York City's most important economic engines.
"We welcome them back with open arms," Cohen said after the U.S. began allowing vaccinated international travelers into the country this month. "We’ve got a long way to go."
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Times Square has long stood as an emblem of New York’s hustle and bustle. But as Broadway theaters shut their doors and the city became an early epicenter of the global pandemic, 9 in 10 businesses in the area closed, according to a district civic group, The Times Square Alliance.
"We really were a symbol to the world of the pandemic and the pause," said Tom Harris, the alliance's president.
Three-fourths of area businesses have since reopened, bit by bit, as Broadway shows began reopening to vaccinated-only audiences.
Among those hopefully restarting are businesses that don't cater directly to tourists, but are part of the city's entertainment ecosystem.
Sam Vasili’s Shoe Repair reopened last month across 51st Street from the Gershwin Theater, where it had operated for three decades before a long pandemic closure.
Owner Sam Smolyar was all grins on a recent afternoon as he shared the news that a Broadway production set to reopen nearby had requisitioned his help. For years, he helped outfit the Rockettes with custom-fitted boots. "We rely on the theater, and on the businesses around here," he said.
He hopes more people buying tickets on Broadway will mean busier times.
"It starts to get better," said Vasili, who employs three people at the shop.
Just before the COVID-19 outbreak, New York City was posting record numbers of tourists — 66.6 million in 2019, including 13.5 million from outside the U.S. Then the pandemic prompted severe restrictions on foreign travel.
A marketing blitz has been underway for months to remind Americans that New York City is again open for business and ready for the visiting masses. Now the city is expanding its outreach to those outside the U.S., who are especially coveted because they spend more time and more money during their visits.
While domestic travel accounted for 80% of visitors, foreign tourists account for about half of the city’s tourism spending and typically represent half of all hotel bookings.
Harris of the Times Square Alliance said the district is already rebounding. Since May, he said, the number of pedestrians counted in some places has grown from 150,000 per day to as many as 250,000 — still far below the roughly 365,000 people who tramped through the grid of streets before the pandemic.
"Between the return of Broadway, the return of international tourists," Harris said, "we really expect to be at those pre-pandemic numbers sooner than most people predict."
Those returning visitors included people like Marina Galan, who soaked in Times Square from the bleachers under a cascade of lights. She and her friends flew to New York from Madrid on the first day U.S. borders opened to vaccinated tourists.
"When you come back to New York, this is what you want to see," she said. "Everything is kind of back to normal."
Her friend Pablo Leon said he was eager to return. The group took a risk last March when they bought tickets for the Broadway musical Hadestown, despite being uncertain about when they’d be allowed to travel to the United States.
"That was the true gamble because we bought the tickets for tonight, without any knowledge if we were going to be able to come here," Leon said.
NYC & Company, the city’s tourism agency, is spending millions of dollars overseas to draw tourists back. It projects 2.8 million foreign visitors by the end of the year, a sliver of the 13.5 million who visited in 2019. With borders reopened, officials hope the number of visitors will steadily rise over the next few years and again reach record levels within the next four years.
"We’re hoping to do everything we can to accelerate that timeline," said Chris Heywood, the agency’s executive vice president.
The campaign is initially focused on Canada, Mexico, Brazil, South Korea and parts of Europe, but will likely expand into other countries — possibly into China, a particularly lucrative market because Chinese visitors significantly outspend other nationalities.
Chinese visitors, however, may decide to stay put for now because of quarantining requirements back home — at least two weeks when returning from an overseas trip.
"Daytrips and domestic tourists are helping Broadway, museums and restaurants, but New York can’t reach our pre-pandemic level of visitors until international tourism returns in full," New York State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli said. "Reopening America’s borders is a big help, but other factors, beyond our control, make it hard to see when we’ll get back to the numbers we had before the world shut down."
The return of annual traditions like New York City's big Thanksgiving parade and the Times Square New Year's Eve celebration could attract more visitors.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has also announced a $450 million initiative to help revitalize the tourism industry.
On a recent day, William Brownstein hawked comedy club tickets to passersby who might now be ready to laugh off the months of grim news.
"With all the crazy things going on" — with Republicans and Democrats, with pro- and anti-vaccine viewpoints — "you got to laugh about it," said Brownstein, who returned from his unplanned hiatus in May, soon after comedy clubs were allowed to reopen.
"I think as time progresses, we will see a lot more people come," he predicted. "It’s just going to take a little time, but they will be back like they were before."