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Tourists are finally starting to take a bite of the Big Apple again.
After a year-long COVID-19 lockdown turned the city into a virtual ghost town, a steady stream of visitors is once again checking into hotels, gaping up at skyscrapers and asking New Yorkers which way Fifth Avenue is, hospitality industry insiders said.
“I’ve always wanted to come here,” said Sarah Haskins of Dallas, TX as she posed for a street portrait in Times Square with her new husband Harold on Friday.
They were spending their honeymoon in the Big Apple “just to see something different.”
“The pandemic has been going on for a while now. We’re kind of used to it. We know the precautions to take,” Haskins said. “The pandemic is the same no matter where you go.”
Hotel occupancy in the Big Apple hit 47 percent for the week of Mar. 7 to Mar. 13 – the highest weekly average for Gotham since late June, according to STR, a data firm that tracks the hospitality industry.
Last Saturday night, that figure jumped to 61.5 percent, a significant rise from the January figures of 38 percent, but still well under pre-pandemic figures of 87 percent, STR said.
More pedestrians have also started to flood into Times Square, according to Tom Harris, the acting president and chief operating officer at the Times Square Alliance.
“Over the last week we’ve noticed an uptick,” said Harris.
Raul Fernandez of Puerto Rico was among those tourists in Times Square Friday.
“I feel comfortable, safe. Everybody uses a mask, takes care of each other,” said Fernandez, who was visiting the city with his family for the first time.
They made sure to hit up the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center and even some museums.
“That’s why we came here – for tourism,” Fernandez said.
New York City’s hotel occupancy “has been improving each week,” said Nick Minerd, a spokesman for STR, which is based in Tennessee.
Since September, foot traffic in Times Square has been “hovering around” 100,000 people per day, Harris noted.
Harris attributed the 15 percent increase in foot traffic to “a combination of things – nicer weather, more [coronavirus vaccine] shots in people’s arms and an easing up of some of the [COVID-19 safety] restrictions.”
He predicted that as even more coronavirus restrictions get lifted in the Big Apple and even more people get vaccinated against COVID-19 “that’s going to lead to more visitors to New York City.”
The city’s tourism bureau, NYC & Company, said that it expects to gain more than half of the visitors to the city back this year as compared to 2019 and that last weekend’s hotel occupancy was the “best” the Big Apple has had in nearly a year.
In 2019, 66.6 million tourists visited in the city and that figure plunged in 2020 to 22.3 million as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, according to NYC & Company which projects that it will see an increase of 36.4 million visitors in 2021.
Still, the current stats for the city’s hotel occupancy and pedestrians roaming around Times Square is a far cry from where those figures were at pre-pandemic.
Hotel occupancy in the city was at 87.1 percent for a comparable week in March of 2019, according to STR.
And before the global health crisis that killed nearly 40,000 New Yorkers, there were about 365,000 people per day walking through Times Square, Harris said.
That number plummeted to 35,000 people per day last April as the pandemic shut down the city.
“We will be back,” Harris declared. “The best days are coming for Times Square and New York City.”
NYC & Company spokesman Christopher Heywood also expressed optimism.
“The ship is turning and our recovery will be gradual, but certain,” he said.
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