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Broadway is dark. Liberty Island is empty. Will the tourists come back?
Performers dressed as cartoon characters seem to outnumber visitors in New York's Times Square on Saturday, July 18, 2020. Business leaders are trying to devise plans to revive the tourism industry, which brought in $45 billion annually and supported 300,000 jobs. Victor J. Blue/The New York Times.

by Patrick McGeehan

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Broadway theaters and museums that tourists would flock to are still closed. The United States has banned travel from China, Brazil and much of Europe. And Gov. Andrew Cuomo has ordered a quarantine for visitors from 31 of the country’s states.

Four months after New York City shut down to combat the coronavirus, its vital tourism industry remains essentially paralyzed even as the city struggles to kick-start its moribund economy.

The enormous challenge the city faces was on vivid display when the Statue of Liberty reopened Monday. Instead of carrying the usual throngs of visitors from around the world, the first boats to the island that holds the statue ferried more journalists than paying customers.

Times Square, typically gridlocked with visitors, was nearly as lonesome. “It’s not that happening,” said Swathi Roja, who lives in Washington, assessing the so-called Crossroads of the World. “Maybe I’m not getting the real New York City.”

New York’s abrupt lockdown in March came just before the annual onslaught of tourists as the weather begins to warm. Officials had been expecting more than 67 million visitors in 2020, about one-fifth of them from outside the country.

Now the city’s tourism officials have been left wondering how they will ever revive an industry that brought in about $45 billion in annual spending and supported about 300,000 jobs.

Not since the grim days of the 1970s — when crime was rampant, the subway was in disarray, and boarded-up storefronts were abundant — has promoting New York to out-of-towners seemed so daunting, said Jonathan Tisch, chief executive of Loews Hotels and former chairman of NYC & Co., the city’s tourism marketing agency.

“There are all kinds of challenges that are going to make our jobs of rebuilding tourism and New York City’s economy even tougher,” said Tisch, who worked the front desk at one of his family’s hotels as a college student in the 1970s.

He said the process of rebuilding the city’s image as a safe and fun place to visit would take a lot of time and help from the state and city government. Along with rhetorical support from elected officials, hotels and restaurants are seeking tax breaks and rent relief.

“We can survive this,” Tisch added.

Tisch is one of dozens of leaders of tourism-dependent businesses who have been devising plans for the industry’s recovery from its longest and steepest slump in memory. The situation is unlike the city’s brief shutdown after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 because Americans felt a patriotic urge then to help the city heal, he said.

Two nights after the attacks, on Sept. 13, shows resumed at all 23 Broadway theaters.

But this time, with confined indoor spaces making it easier for the virus to spread, the theaters plan to remain dark until next year. Without the shows that serve as the city’s thumping heart, hundreds of hotels and restaurants in Manhattan are simply trying to survive 2020.

“The perception is that if Broadway is closed, New York City is closed,” Tisch said.

In the second week of July, the occupancy rate of New York City hotels was just 37%, according to STR, a research firm. That is down from more than 90% in recent summers.

“We think it’s too soon to encourage travel and invite folks to come back in,” said Fred Dixon, chief executive of NYC & Co. He said that for the past four months the city had had no tourism to speak of and that he was not even guessing how many visitors it would tally for the year.

So instead of promoting the city in international capitals and other faraway places as it typically does, the agency is narrowing its focus to New York and its surrounding areas.

This month the city introduced a campaign themed “All In NYC” that was created by Aruliden, a Manhattan marketing firm, to stir interest among local residents in exploring the city and seeing some of its sights.

The strategy is similar to one being employed by Paris, which is encouraging its own residents to tour the city without the usual hordes. “Paris is yours” is the theme of that campaign.

But even a scarcity of tourists may not be enough of a lure to get jaded New Yorkers to venture to the city’s famous attractions. Local residents were nowhere to be found among the few visitors to the Statue of Liberty on Monday morning.

For now, the city may have to rely on people like Shin Roldan, 31, and her new husband, Keith, 30. The couple, who live within commuting distance in Morristown, New Jersey, were having a honeymoon of sorts a few months after a “pandemic wedding” in their backyard, she said.

Despite the city’s continuing ban on indoor dining, they said they were enjoying their stay in a midtown Manhattan hotel. They had already ridden the tram to Roosevelt Island in the East River and planned to go to the observation deck atop the Empire State Building, which had just reopened.

“We can take a lot of pictures, just the two of us, with nobody else in the pictures,” Keith Roldan said. “That’s always a problem in New York.”

The fourth phase of the city’s reopening, which started Monday, was a mixed blessing for Brad Hill, whose company operates the concessions on Liberty Island and nearby Ellis Island. It allowed him to bring back more than 100 employees who had been laid off since mid-March. But with so few tourists, being open again was a losing proposition, he said.

Just a few days before, Cuomo had upended his plans by excluding museums from the list of places that could reopen. That ruled out Ellis Island, whose main attraction is its exhibits on immigration and archives that visitors can search for records of their relatives.

Hill said he had spent about $60,000 preparing the dining areas and gift shops on the two islands to accept customers in a socially distant manner. Now he was no longer planning to hire more than 150 seasonal workers for the summer.

Hill said he was having flashbacks to the recovery from past shutdowns of the statue after 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. “The only problem with this one is, there are no tourists,” he said.

Kate Fone and her family, visiting from Haverhill, Massachusetts, saw the statue from a passing tour boat before it reopened. She, her husband and son made a spontaneous trip to take advantage of the low prices and lack of crowds.

They were staying in an Airbnb rental on Fifth Avenue that was “a real good deal,” she said as she stood outside St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

Some intrepid travelers made longer treks in defiance of Cuomo’s quarantine rules.

Shea Ellis, 33, and Tony Green, 34, drove to New York from Talladega, Alabama, a state on Cuomo’s list, with his three children. Ellis, a business manager, said she was undaunted by the spreading virus.

“It’s all over the country,” she said. “I haven’t been worried about it.”

Green, a truck driver, added, “You can’t just stop your life.”

They said they liked the lack of traffic in Manhattan but were disappointed that so much of the city, like the 9/11 Memorial Museum, was still closed.

“You don’t get the real experience,” Ellis said.

Abigail Valle made an even longer haul with her nephew, Hazael, and her mother. Taking a break from posing at the base of the Statue of Liberty, she said they had driven 48 hours straight from their home in Azusa, California, to see relatives in Brooklyn.

“I just wanted to see it in real life,” she said of the statue.

After a week in the city, they were heading back on the road Monday night, Valle said. Next stop: Las Vegas.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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