New York City tour guide Luke Miller misses taking people on subway rides. A born and bred New Yorker, it was one of his favorite job perks. “It started out when I was a kid, running around the underground. Now, my focus has always been doing it the way New Yorkers do it. Subway and foot.”
Miller is the founder of Real New York tours, a popular walking tour company focused on immersive, local and adventurous sightseeing. Prior to the pandemic, their most notable tour was a 6.5-hour trek around Manhattan neighborhoods that shuffled attendees into crowded subway cars and marched them through back streets in Little Italy. Since Covid-19 hit, none of this has been possible. The influx of out-of-towners has halted, subways are comparatively vacant and crowds must be avoided to uphold public health.
Needless to say, the pandemic has devastated New York City’s tourism sector, which employed over 3,000 guides, along with some 400,000 employees in the food and hospitality industries. In 2019, the city ushered in nearly 67 million tourists, shattering its visitor record. Tour company and attraction employees who were slammed with work just a year ago are now unemployed and facing the hurdle of rebranding their entire existence.
The question now festering in everyone’s minds is whether such a rebranding is possible. New York City will not be welcoming many travelers this calendar year and chances are slim that cultural landmarks and institutions will open at full capacity. With citywide occupancy rates at 37 percent in mid-July, some hotels are even converting rooms into offices. It’s unlikely tourism will fully recover in the foreseeable future.
The only solution appears to lie in a total, ground-up industry reconstruction. Recently, the Coalition for NYC Hospitality and Tourism Recovery, an initiative created by NYC & Co, offered up something of the sort. It’s a campaign called “All In NYC,” geared at connecting New Yorkers with their city’s public offerings and generating jobs for former industry employees.
The plan is divided into three phases– each meant to incrementally expand the breadth of the industry–and is built to be flexible should a second wave of Covid-19 hit New York this fall. The initial phase revolved around the implementation of virtual programming and content on the NYC Go website. The second stage, which we’ve now officially entered, includes initiatives to encourage residents of the five boroughs and those within a short drive to visit nearby outdoor installations and attractions. Stage three, set to commence early fall as more of the city’s sectors reopen and visitors return, will launch a digital campaign advertising ways in which people can recreate and participate in local tourism. All of the campaign’s stages will work in tandem with the city’s reopening, and are kept intentionally vague in accordance with the volatility of our times.
Above all, the plan stresses the importance of regenerating a local engagement in tourism before expanding any focus to outside visitors, especially with travelers from 34 states now being required to quarantine for 14 days before going out and about. The initiatives place an effort on surfacing hidden neighborhood gems that might have flown under the radar among locals because they were outshined by larger cultural monuments. One such effort is All In NYC’s collaboration with the Public Art Fund; a multiplatform exhibition of the work of 50 rising artists that can be found across all five boroughs by checking out this map. There are Black Lives Matter murals, photographs, multimedia poems and sculptures.
“Our initial focus on hyperlocal is important because, as we learned following the financial crisis in 2008, getting New Yorkers to spend in their city through staycations and other promotions was a key part of our success,” states the All in NYC Campaign. “Simply put: Once New Yorkers actively engage with their city again, so too will the nation and the world.”
The recovery plan is contingent upon New Yorkers doing staycations at local hotels or Airbnbs and venturing to see art. It asks them to be a new kind of tourist in a traumatized but mending city. While the current campaign stage doesn’t necessarily contradict any state-sanctioned safety guidelines, there are concerns from local companies like Real New York Tours that NYC and Co’s plan might be overly-optimistic.
“It’s a tough call. I don’t know if the market for New York is going to be really great. New Yorkers are hard to sell,” said Miller. “They can be jaded. They think they know New York. I’ve had people book tours who thought they really knew the city and were blown away by what they didn’t know, what they pass every day and didn’t know about. You’ve got to find a way to sell those people, and I hope they do., I just don’t know if this is the moment.”
That’s a sobering thing to admit for someone who lived and breathed interactive tourism, especially since his walking tour company sports a wide collection of off-the-beaten path adventures that might surprise even lifelong residents. But the reality is that the vast majority of RNYT’s income came from out-of-towners.
There’s also the harsh economic reality that with close to 1.5 million unemployed state residents, New Yorkers might not be so enthusiastic about walking tours and Airbnb stays in nearby boroughs. While the tourism sector did indeed recover from the 2008 economic crisis, the obstacles faced then weren’t exacerbated by the anxiety of contracting a deadly virus.
To its credit, All In NYC includes a “Stay Well Pledge” that promises to create transparency around health and safety procedures, and encourage top-of-the-line cleaning standards. Such guarantees, however, can only hold so much weight right now. Tour companies like Miller’s have decided that they feel most comfortable remaining in the equivalent of All In NYC’s stage one – purely virtual. Real New York Tours have gone ahead and designed livestream-able, educational tours of both Upstate New York and local NYC neighborhoods in order to stay active and somewhat afloat. According to Miller, their target audience will not be local New Yorkers seeking fun, engaging recreation.
“We’re targeting school groups, and making our tours more educational. People are going to be looking for new teaching content, and won’t be coming here for field trips, Spring Break or Christmas vacation.”
Miller plans to make his tours as thematic as possible. “I’ll be looking at a lot of curriculums, seeing what they’re like for 7th, 8th or 9th graders. We could do a whole tour on immigration, for example.”
It’s clear that not all tourism employees will be moving forward under NYC & Co’s plan, and it remains a mystery as to whether or not a hyper-localized version of the industry will gel with city residents. What can be agreed upon, however, is that New York’s tourism scene will be restructured in fundamental and permanent ways.