NEW YORK — VETERAN New Yorkers can spot them instantly. "They always look lost," says one Manhattan bus driver. "They're not nearly as cautious as native New Yorkers," says Greenwich Village Chamber of Commerce president Judith Joice.
They're talking about the 25 million people who visit the Big Apple each year, the working hum of the city's vital tourist industry.
The Gulf war, the recession, and the city's reputation for high prices and high crime have dealt serious setbacks to tourism here in recent years. Yet there are signs that at least a limited recovery now is under way.
Hotel occupancy rates have begun to rise for the first time since 1990. Between the Democratic National Convention at Madison Square Garden this week and city celebrations in honor of the 500th anniversary of Columbus's voyage, the city expects its strongest July for tourism in five years. "All indications are that we're going to have a banner summer," says New York Convention and Visitors Bureau spokeswoman Jeanine Moss.
International tourists are only one-fourth of the tourist total but the fastest growing segment and account for almost 40 percent of all visitor dollars spent here. Italian visitors delight in telling you how little they pay here for Timberland Shoes and Levi's. A group of Spanish high school students points proudly to small cassette recorders as their bargains.
International tourists also tend to be more adventurous than their American counterparts. "The Japanese particularly like to go to Harlem," says Leslie Doggett, New York City's director of tourism. Many visitors from abroad are less bothered by New York's grime and close quarters. "We like all the crowding and the rushing and the taxis honking - it's crazy!" says Uta Trachinow of Kessel, Germany, as she adjusts her brother Chris's backpack during a break between tours at Rockefeller Center.
New York's diversity of attractions is both a strength and a challenge.
"The city has an enormous menu from which to choose," notes Mitchell Moss, director of New York University's Urban Research Center, which completed a major study on Big Apple tourism last fall. "The real challenge for New York is to make tourism a central part of its economic development strategy." Though the state is sending a larger than usual share of its tourism budget to the city, the total state spending for tourism has dropped from about $16 million in 1988 to $3 million.
Still, city officials have taken a number of steps on their own recently to increase tourism and add to the diversity of city offerings. Two zones in each of the five boroughs have been tapped for tourist development. Five public relations firms are promoting events in each as a pro bono effort. Later this month New York Mayor David Dinkins will award $250,000 in grants to nonprofit groups launching tourism projects in each borough.
Another new effort aimed at persuading more tourists to explore hidden corners of the city, and thus to spend more broadly, is the one-on-one Big Apple Greeter program launched in May by Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger. Trained volunteers (384 so far) who know their neighborhoods are paired with visitors.
One English visitor says he was pleased that any New Yorker "cared enough" to voluntarily give tours. "We want to attract more visitors to the city and make them feel more comfortable," says Cathy Brashich, associate director of the program.