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New York, New York It's A Helluva Town

Bloomberg: New York is No. 1 tourist destination in the country

Frank Lombardi and Adam Lisberg  Jan 04, 2010

The Big Apple was the biggest draw for tourists in the United States last year, Mayor Bloomberg said Monday, with the number of visitors falling only 3.9% despite the recession.

"We really have done a good job in attracting people," Bloomberg said.

While high-spending international visitors fell almost 10% in 2009, the number of American tourists declined only slightly, according to figures from NYC & Co., the city's tourism agency.

"The domestic market has certainly picked up the reduction in international tourism," said George Fertitta, head of NYC & Co.

New York's 45.25 million tourists last year made it the nation's top draw for the first time since 1990, surpassing Orlando, Fla., Bloomberg said.

While 36.7 million of those visitors came from the U.S., only 8.6 million came from outside the country. Bloomberg said the swine flu scare and worldwide recession kept foreign tourists away - as did rigorous border security that makes legitimate visitors feel hassled.

"We're not as welcoming as we could be," Bloomberg said.

Since the average foreign visitor spends almost five times as much as a domestic visitor, total tourist spending fell to an estimated $28 billion last year - down from $32.1 billion a year before.

City officials had predicted a 10% decrease in tourism a year ago, but now say they are on target to meet their goal of 50 million visitors by 2012.

While NYC & Co. has aggressive marketing campaigns and overseas offices to drum up international business, Bloomberg said keeping New York safe and clean during the recession has helped it maintain its appeal to tourists.

"They want to go to a place where people are nice," Bloomberg said. "And I hear again and again and again from friends from around the world that come here, and they say, 'You know, I never knew New Yorkers were such nice people.' "

Bloomberg discussed the numbers at the Greenhouse Cafe, a restaurant in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, that takes part in NYC & Co.'s annual "Restaurant Week" promotion.

Even with the downturn, Bloomberg said tourism's impact on the city economy was able to reach new heights last year: It employed 311,000 people and sold 23.6 million nights in hotel rooms - both new records.

The number of international air passengers into the city's three major airports fell 4.5% in the twelve months ending in October, according to Port Authority of New York and New Jersey statistics.

The number of domestic passengers fell 7%, however, suggesting that many of the city's visitors are driving or otherwise staying out of the skies.

Hotel occupancy rebounded in the last quarter of 2009, even though room rates remain below their levels of a year earlier, said PKF Consulting tourism expert John Fox.

"It is not anywhere near as negative as people expected at the beginning of the year," Fox said. "Our expectations are that we're going to see a continuation of this - that occupancy will be strong."

Average room rates fell roughly 20% in 2009, he said, in part because companies scaled back high-priced business travel, but also because thousands of new hotel rooms opened in the city - many of them priced for budget travelers.

By November, Fox said, the average price of a Manhattan hotel room was $278, down 18.6% from a year earlier - but the occupancy rate was 81.4%, up 1 point from the year before.

The net impact is strong for the city economy, he said, because even if lower prices bring down hotel tax revenues, the hotels still require staff and their guests still spend money in the city.

"These people spend money in restaurants and shopping, and go to shows," Fox said. "You still have to make that bed and serve that meal."

Bloomberg: New York is No. 1 tourist destination in the country
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