New York City never saw a boom in tourism like when Mayor Michael Bloomberg took the reins.
The billionaire businessman kept tourism a top priority, praising the industry for creating many jobs and bringing unmatched revenue to the city. But as his term comes to a close, tourism officials are worried about their future: the industry has seldom been discussed at mayoral debates and few concrete plans to increase tourism in the city have been discussed. If the next mayor ignores tourism and does not take active steps to keep tourists coming – and coming back again – then the city may suffer.
Throughout his reign, Bloomberg saw New York City as a brand, fighting for tourist-friendly attractions like new sports stadiums, green spaces and Citi Bikes, rallying for big conventions, and even creating an agency to brand the city to the rest of the world: NYC & Company.
Since he created the agency in 2006, international visitors to New York City have increased by 52 percent and the economic impact on the city has increased 42 percent. The industry supports more than 330,000 jobs.
“Mayor Bloomberg has been a champion for tourism and a driving force behind the unprecedented growth of the last seven years,” said George Fertitta, CEO of NYC & Company.
NYC & Company has since spread across the globe, with offices in 18 countries to lure in international tourists, who stay longer and spend more. The agency’s goal is to bring in 55 million visitors and $70 billion in economic impact by 2015. But its budget has shrunk and it has a slimmed down staff. Though Bloomberg provided NYC & Company with $21 million in 2007, the city’s contribution has since been reduced to $13.5 million, which has made it more difficult to market the city domestically and abroad. The agency is worried about how the next mayor will factor the agency into the budget.
“We can only hope that the next mayor offers the same level of financial and political support,” said Fertitta.
Originally, NYC & Company talked of holding a mayoral debate in October, but scrapped it in lieu of meeting privately with the candidates, a spokesperson said.
While Bill de Blasio has not announced any concrete plans to support tourism, Joe Lhota has included the hospitality and tourism industry in his Jobs Plan.
“Joe understands how critical tourism is to New York City’s economy and has a plan to ensure that we continue bringing a record number of visitors to the city every year,” said Lhota’s campaign spokesperson Jessica Proud.
Lhota said he would create a CUNY Hospitality Management School and would bring down the occupancy tax on New York City’s hotel rooms to 5%. Tourists staying in hotels (already among the priciest in the nation) pay multiple levies in addition to the city’s occupancy tax, and NYC & Company is worried about the consequences of these high taxes.
“Continued hotel tax increases will begin to carve into bookings and deter travel to the city,” states NYC & Company’s 2013 report New York City Tourism: A Model for Success.
“It is definitely one of the factors that visitors consider when traveling to any city,” said Sharr Prohaska, NYU Professor of Hospitality, Tourism and Sports. “If visitors can save money, they may choose to travel elsewhere.”
But de Blasio, who has an enormous lead in the polls over Lhota, has not made any plans concerning the hotel tax. At a speech in front of the Association for a Better New York in early October, de Blasio was asked by a hotel operator if he would promise not to raise hotel taxes. De Blasio said that he could not promise, citing budget challenges, and said he would support tourism by keeping the city safe and taking care of tourist attractions.
A spokesperson for de Blasio did not return requests for comment.
But leaders in the tourism industry say that simply maintaining the tourist-magnet New York City that Bloomberg created is not enough – active steps must be taken to keep propelling the city forward.
One action the tourism industry wants to see is the termination of Airbnb, a website that allows people to rent out their homes for short periods of time.
“The city must continue to crack down on the growth of illegal hotels and online apartment booking sites,” states NYC & Company’s report. “This illegal practice takes away much-needed hotel tax revenue from city coffers with no consumer protection against fire and health code violations.”
While Lhota has not publically discussed Airbnb, de Blasio answered a question about the company in an “Ask Me Anything” discussion on Reddit on October 8.
“While I appreciate the potential of the sharing economy, and I do think there’s some historical precedent, the challenges posed by Airbnb today are real, in terms of safety, public tax revenue, etc.,” wrote de Blasio.
NYC & Company also wants the next mayor to lobby for congressional visa reforms. For tourists that are not citizens of Visa Waiver Program countries, especially in Asia and Latin America, obtaining a visa can be an exhausting and near-impossible process. This causes these tourists to travel to other destinations and is costing the country millions in lost tourism revenue, says NYC & Company.
“Not only do potential visitors need to apply for a visa months in advance without guarantee of entry, but they often have to travel hours, if not days, to have an in-person interview and then wait several more weeks to be officially approved,” reads NYC & Company’s report.
But above all, NYC & Company says that funds from the city simply must be there in order to support keep tourism in New York City flourishing.
“Tourism is a proven return on investment and we must be looking at ways to augment public support,” said Fertitta.