New patriotic duty: Visit N.Y.C., and spend
NEW YORK — Jo Ellen Walton has never been to New York. A school secretary from Baton Rouge, La., she says she "always wanted" to go - particularly after her daughter honeymooned there last year - but, for one reason or another, never made it.
So when Ms. Walton heard last week that Mayor Rudolph Giuliani was asking people to come to his city and spend money, she didn't hesitate. She got on the phone and booked a five-day stay for herself and a friend.
"It kind of seemed like the thing to do," she says. "So much has happened, I feel like New York's gotten close to everybody's heart."
Walton represents a small but growing group of people who are actually booking trips to New York in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. The reasons for coming range from wanting to show that they are not afraid to wanting to see the wreckage and experience the tragedy firsthand. But almost all cite a desire to show their support for the city as their main motivation - as if visiting New York has become an act of patriotism.
"It just seems like the city is trying to get back on its feet, and it'd be nice to show them that we're behind them," explains Walton. "I think the whole country feels very bonded to the city of New York. Everybody wants the city to heal."
It's not a response that New Yorkers are accustomed to. During the city's economic woes of the 1970s, the federal government refused to give it any aid, prompting the famous Daily News headline: "Ford to City: Drop Dead." But in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, not only did President Bush and Congress immediately offer $20 billion in federal aid, but Americans across the country have been sending checks to help the families of victims.
Of course, many tourists have also chosen to stay away from New York in recent weeks, leaving the city's hotels less than half full and many Broadway shows struggling to survive (six have already closed).
The effects have trickled down to other industries, from restaurants to parking garages, and officials are worried that if the trend continues, it could push the city's economy into a deep slump.
But already, there's some evidence that things may be turning around - thanks in part to a rising influx of visitors like Walton.
The week of the tragedy, Broadway shows saw an 80 percent loss of revenue, with attendance at only 65,155, according to the League of American Theatres and Producers. But by the following week, it was up to 143,641 (though still about 40,000 fewer than in the same week the previous year), and the line for discounted tickets at the TKTS booth in Times Square is stretching down the block.
Officials from other states are also doing their bit to help the tourism industry drum up business. On Sunday, six governors and the mayor of Washington traveled via commercial jet to join New York Gov. George Pataki on a Back to Business tour. On the agenda: dinner and a show, Broadway's "The Lion King."
While hotel occupancy is still at only about 45 percent, "some hotels have reported that they've seen somewhat of a rebound," says Lisa Herbst, a spokeswoman for the Hotel Association of New York City. She adds that many group tours have chosen to postpone, rather than cancel, their trips to New York - and some have changed their plans in order to come to the city. The American Society of Travel Agents was supposed to have its annual meeting in Spain this year, but will now hold it in New York.
Kevin Johnson, a private investor in Lexington, Mass., brought his wife and two children to the city for the weekend - where they were able to get "Lion King" tickets by waiting for about 40 minutes in the cancellation line.
"It just made sense to us, the need to be there," he says. "I knew that hotel vacancies would be high, and that the city wouldn't be real crowded - so I knew it would be a good vacation. But mainly, we just wanted to show our support for the city."
The night before they came down, he recalls, his 10-year-old son got a little worried that a plane might hit their hotel, and needed some reassuring. "That was another reason to go," Mr. Johnson says. "To show them that you can't hide out when something like that happens - to show them that we weren't afraid."
Nor is it just Americans wanting to show they won't be deterred by terrorism. New York City's tourist bureau has been flooded with calls and e-mails from other countries: A high school music teacher from France writes to say he'd like to bring his school's orchestra over to play a concert benefiting the victims' families. A German writes to ask if the New York marathon will be going ahead as usual, and adds "My friends and I stand by you!"
Caroline Duckworth, a lawyer in Leeds, England, had already booked a trip to New York as a surprise for her fiancé, Bob, when the planes hit Sept. 11. She briefly thought about canceling - not because she was afraid, she explains, but because it didn't seem appropriate to be planning a fun vacation in the middle of a tragedy.
But the more she thought about it, the more she felt it would be "an absolute shame to cancel just because a bunch of people have absolutely no respect for anybody else." In the end, she decided to go ahead with the trip, she says, "to make the point that we're not going to be deterred in any way."