With the lights back on, Times Square hopes to regain its luster
New York David Cohen longed to go back to the days when business boomed at his family’s souvenir shop in Times Square.
By the time tourists began returning, foot traffic on Grand Slam souvenirs was not what it was before the coronavirus pandemic, when hordes of global visitors crowded under a canopy of electric billboards outside his door.
But the return of foreign tourists to a place popularly called the crossroads of the world may help accelerate the recovery of businesses like his — many of which are mom-and-pop stores — which collectively employ thousands of people and serve as one of New York City’s most important economic drivers.
“We welcome them back with open arms,” Cohen said after the United States began letting immune-defense international travelers into the country this month. “We still have a long way to go.”
Times Square has long stood as a symbol of New York’s hustle and bustle, but when Broadway theaters closed their doors at the height of the pandemic, 9 out of 10 businesses in the area closed, according to a local civic group, The Times Square Alliance.
Three-quarters of it has since reopened, little by little, as Broadway shows begin to reopen to audiences that have only been vaccinated.
Among those we hope to restart are companies that do not directly cater to tourists, but are part of the city’s leisure ecosystem.
Sam Vasili’s Shoe Repair reopened last month across 51st Street from the Gershwin Theatre, where it operated for three decades before a long pandemic shutdown.
Owner Sam Smolyar was grinning on a recent afternoon as he shared the news that a Broadway production that was scheduled to reopen nearby had asked for his help. For years, he’s been helping outfit the Rockettes with matching shoes. “We depend on the stage and on the business that is here,” he said.
He hopes that more people buying tickets on Broadway will mean busier times.
It’s starting to get better,” said Vasily, who employs three people in the shop.
Just before the COVID-19 outbreak, New York City was registering record numbers of tourists – 66.6 million in 2019, including 13.5 million from outside the United States. Then the epidemic spread, which led to the imposition of severe restrictions on travel abroad.
There has been a marketing blitz for months now to remind Americans that New York City is once again open for business and ready for the visiting masses. Now the city is expanding its reach to those outside the United States, who are in particular demand because they spend more time and more money during their visits.
While domestic travel accounts for 80% of New York’s visitors, foreign tourists account for about half of the city’s tourism spending and typically account for half of all hotel bookings.
Tom Harris, president of the Times Square Alliance, said the area is already beginning to recover. Since May, he said, the number of pedestrians counted in some places has increased from 150,000 a day to as many as 250,000 – still far less than the roughly 365,000 people who roamed the street grid before the pandemic.
“Between the return of Broadway, the return of international tourists, we really expect these numbers before the pandemic to be faster than most people expect,” Harris said.
Among those returning visitors were people like Marina Galan, who plunged into Times Square from the stands under a string of lights. She and her friends traveled to New York from Madrid on the first day the US borders became open to vaccinated tourists.
“When you get back to New York, that’s what you want to see,” she said. “Everything is kind of back to normal.”
Boyfriend Pablo Leon said he is eager to return. The group took a risk last March when they bought tickets to the Hudderstown musical on Broadway, although they were unsure when they would be allowed to fly to the United States.
“That was the real gamble because we bought tickets tonight, without any knowledge of whether we would be able to come here,” Leon said.
NYC & Company, the city’s tourism agency, spends millions of dollars abroad to attract tourists to the city. It expects 2.8 million foreign visitors by the end of the year, a tiny number from the 13.5 million who visited in 2019. With the reopening of borders, officials hope that the number of visitors will rise steadily over the next few years and again reach record levels within the next four years.
“We hope to do everything we can to accelerate this schedule,” said Chris Heywood, the agency’s executive vice president.
The campaign initially focuses on Canada, Mexico, Brazil, South Korea and parts of Europe, but is likely to expand to other countries – possibly in China, a particularly lucrative market because Chinese visitors spend heavily on other nationalities.
However, Chinese visitors may decide to stay put for the time being due to home quarantine requirements – at least two weeks after returning from a foreign trip.
“Day trips and local tourists are helping Broadway, museums and restaurants, but New York can’t reach our pre-pandemic level of visitors until international tourism fully returns,” said New York State Comptroller Thomas B. Dinapoli. “Reopening America’s borders is a huge help, but there are other factors, beyond our control, that make it difficult to know when we will return to the numbers we had before the world closed.”
The return of annual traditions such as the Great Thanksgiving Parade in New York City and the New Year’s Eve celebration in Times Square could attract even more visitors.
New York Governor Cathy Hochhol also announced a $450 million initiative to help revitalize the tourism industry.
On a recent day, William Brownstein sold Comedy Club tickets to passersby who might now be ready to laugh at the months of bleak news.
It’s allowed to reopen,” said Brownstein, who returned from an unplanned hiatus in May, shortly after the comedy clubs stopped.
“I think as time goes on, we’ll see more people coming in,” he predicted. “It will only take a while, but they will be back to how they were before.”
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