Brazilian tourists take pictures of each other in front of the Statue of Liberty in New York, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2012. Just days ago, New York City officials cheered the record-breaking arrival of the city's 50 millionth visitor of the year.
Just days after cheering the arrival of the record-breaking 50 millionth visitor of the year to New York City, officials are starting over and counting from one.
Now, with the New Year's confetti cleared from Times Square and 2012 under way, the city's promoters are back at work hoping to draw another 50 million tourists — and more — in the coming 12 months.
With the value of the euro wavering, drawing some American travelers overseas and discouraging some Europeans from shelling out for international vacations, the year could prove challenging to those trying to lure visitors to New York City.
Attracting these leisure visitors and their business traveler counterparts is no idle pastime for the city. Officials say New York's tourism industry brought in $32 billion and supported about 320,000 jobs last year — a significant impact in a city that is struggling with budget shortfalls and the prospect of possible tough times for the financial sector that provides a significant portion of its tax revenue.
"We are cognizant of the forces that we have little control over, such as the world economic situation," said George Fertitta, the CEO of NYC & Company, the city's tourism and marketing arm. "No one can really anticipate any of the currency fluctuations, but when we do all of our research, we still believe we're going to grow by at least 2 percent next year."
Analysts, too, are upbeat about the future of an industry that has been much-promoted by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who declared in 2006 that the city would reach 50 million yearly visitors by 2015, then later moved up the deadline to 2012, only to arrive at the goal a year early.
Since Bloomberg first announced the target, the yearly total of visitors — including day-trippers arriving from more than 50 miles away — has risen from 42.7 million in 2005 to 50.2 million in 2011 — an estimate the city arrives at, in part, through online and traveler surveys.
Over that time, the city has outpaced other top U.S. markets, booking about 20 percent more hotel stays than it did in 2005. But during that same six-year stretch, New York's hotel stays have grown more slowly than some of its competitor destinations around the world, such as London, Hong Kong and Berlin, according to Smith Travel Research.
With the number of international travelers worldwide booming, the race to attract visitors has become a global undertaking, and NYC & Company has opened offices around the world to attract the prized foreign tourists. They make up 20 percent of the city's visitors, but represent 50 percent of total visitor spending.
England supplies more overseas visitors to New York than anywhere else — and Italy and Ireland are also on the list of 10 countries sending the most visitors to the city. So NYC & Company will be carefully monitoring the impact of Europe's financial difficulties — as well as economic conditions at home, Fertitta says.
His organization will be launching marketing efforts to attract people from the affected areas — emphasizing affordability, offering discounts and trying to capitalize on this year's events. When the city hit its 50 millionth visitor of the year last month, the mayor feted a British couple at a very public press conference in Times Square, partly in the hopes of generating publicity back in England. And this year, ahead of the summer Olympics in July and August, they'll be looking into ways to attract Londoners who want to escape the crowds.
Fertitta says he believes that turmoil in the Middle East will also help the city, as European travelers who might otherwise have gone there turn toward New York.
Because the city's visitors are such a diverse group, the New York's tourism industry is somewhat insulated from crises in individual regions. Even while Europe is struggling, the number of first-time visitors to the city — many of them from emerging markets such as Brazil, where people are finding themselves increasingly able to afford the trip — has been growing.
"The tourism industry is less sensitive than conventional wisdom says to the currency transactions," Bloomberg argued recently. "The determinants that are going to keep us getting tourists here are safe streets, clean streets, great parks, great cultural institutions, but most importantly the people who live in this city."
New York City has benefited from an image shift over the last 15 years or so — due partly to real drops in crime and quality-of-life improvements, as well as shifts in perception, as gritty TV crime shows gave way to series like "Friends" and "Sex and the City."
The city is working to encourage and capitalize on that image makeover. One advertising campaign — titled "Just Ask the Locals" — sought to fight the perception that New Yorkers were rude. Now, NYC & Company is working to overcome the idea that the city is too crowded and unsafe to be a good destination for kids.
As part of an effort to siphon the family travelers who have traditionally gravitated toward the city's primary domestic tourism rival, Orlando, NYC & Company has started advertising itineraries for children and running promotional campaigns involving popular cartoon characters. The strategy is working, Fertitta says.
The city organization is also targeting other groups of domestic visitors, launching a campaign centered around same-sex marriage in the hopes of attracting more gay visitors and also turning its focus to baby boomer retirees.
And the city promoters will be working on convincing travelers at home and abroad that, despite any currency shifts, New York is a good bargain. It is a relatively new idea for a city that is legendary for its high rents and living costs.
But the city has indeed become an easier destination for travelers without big wallets, said John Fox, senior vice president at travel firm PKF Consulting. The number of New York City hotel rooms has grown 24 percent since 2006 to roughly 90,000, and rooms in central Manhattan costing $150 to $200 have multiplied — an option that was unheard of just a few years ago, when a visitor could easily pay $400 per night outside of Manhattan.
Fox argues that shift has helped the city's tourist boom.
"There's more rooms available at a more reasonable price point, so I think that's opened up the market significantly," he said.