After four years as a jet-setting consultant in the financial industry, Ryan Zenga grew weary of traveling so much for his job, tired of the rude hotel clerks and snippy flight attendants. So he quit his high-paying job and enrolled in graduate school to follow his bliss.
But some of his friends were baffled when they learned what that bliss was: He is pursuing a master’s degree in tourism.
"You’re studying to be a travel agent?" people kept asking.
Poor service or no, Zenga sees tourism as the industry of the future. "People will always travel," he said.
Right now, they are traveling more and more to New York.
Last month, the number of visitors to the city reached pre-September 11 levels for the first time. Hotels are filling up, sites like the Empire State Building are drawing record numbers, and even foreign visitors, who dropped off most drastically in recent years, are returning.
That is why the city, like Zenga, is making tourism a major focus of its future economic development.
In March, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a $1.4 billion plan to expand the Jacob Javits Convention Center on the west side of Manhattan.
"This is about more than just tourism," Bloomberg said. "It's about our future and making sure that future means jobs for New Yorkers, and opportunity for everyone up and down the economic ladder."
As summer begins and more visitors wander the streets, guidebooks in hand, some New Yorkers wonder: do all these gawking visitors really translate into jobs â€“ and the kind of jobs that residents want and need?
A BRIEF HISTORY OF TOURISM IN NEW YORK
Tourists first started coming to the city in large numbers after 1820 — and providing jobs for New Yorkers — when transportation became faster and cheaper, according to the Encyclopedia of New York.
By the beginning of the 20th century, electric bus tours zipped visitors around Manhattan and Brooklyn. In 1931, one million people paid a dollar to ride to the top of the Empire State Building. Grasping the potential, the city created the first agency to promote tourism, the New York City Convention and Visitors Bureau in 1935. By 1945, the Circle Line boats began their sightseeing excursions.
A decade later, tourism had become a major industry and officials actively marketed its image, eventually birthing slogans like "Fun City," "Big Apple," and "I LOVE NY."
However, there have long been tensions between New Yorkers and visitors.
If Thomas Jefferson wasn't exactly a tourist in 1790 when he expressed relief at leaving a place he called a "sewer of all the depravities of human nature," his sentiments persist to this day."I went to "Wonderful" New York recently," one visitor wrote on a website recently, "If one more [person] at the [South Street] Seaport asks me to buy a watch I'm gonna shoot them." The web site is called I HATE NYC
New Yorkers are happy to return the feelings, complaining about tourists stopping on the sidewalk for no apparent reason, overruning neighborhoods, driving up prices, and wearing really unhip pastel clothing.
"It’s reached a point to where I don’t go out to lunch," said John Sweeting, a lawyer who works a block west of Times Square. "To avoid the crowds, I bring my lunch and hide in my office."
BOOM TIMES ARE BACK
New York City officials, though, are happy to see them back. The industry had peaked in 2000, then crashed in the months after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Approximately 30,000 people who work in tourism lost their jobs.
Now nearly three years after the attacks, many of the economic signs point toward better times ahead.
This year, New York City expects 36.6 million people to come from out-of-town and to spend more than $15 billion, reaching record highs. New York’s occupancy rates are second in the nation (after Washington D.C.) with 87 percent of all rooms filled. And even foreign tourists, who spend four times more than domestic travelers, are returning lured in part by a weak U.S. dollar.
"We have pretty well recovered from September 11, with the exception of lower Manhattan," said Chuck Hunt of the New York State Restaurant Association. "Look at the New York Times Sunday job ads and you will see four or five columns of restaurant-related ads every week."
September 11 may have also changed the relationship between New Yorkers and tourists.
"New Yorkers had the attitude that if you don’t come to New York, you’re too dumb to be worth having," Jonathan Tisch, the CEO of Loews Hotels and chairman of NYC and Company told Newsday. "In an ironic way, 9/11 woke up a lot of people to the importance of tourism because of the substantial drop-off."
In turn, many people who had long been suspicious of New York turned sympathetic.
Gudryn Bilas, a tourist from New Zealand, said her view of New Yorkers improved after 9/11 and when she arrived, they turned out to be even friendlier than she previously thought. "People see me looking at my guide book and keep stopping to offer directions," she said, as she twirled it every which way, as if deciphering an ancient text, in City Hall Park.
WHAT DO TOURISTS REALLY BRING TO THE ECONOMY?
Tim Zagat, publisher of the Zagat’s Survey, once described each tourist that visits the city as "carrying a little wheelbarrow full of cash to put in the pockets of New Yorkers."
But while the tourism industry is critical to the local economy, some experts say that its overall impact — and the number of jobs tourism creates — is relatively small given the size of New York.
The biggest employers in the city are still finance, insurance, real estate and health care. Even with all of the growth in recent years, tourism-related jobs only still represent about five percent of the city’s total jobs. (By contrast, the health care industry employs 14 percent of the city's workforce.)
The real benefit of tourism is how it supplements New York’s existing economy. New Yorkers also eat at restaurants, go to Broadway shows, and visit the Met, but visitors help boost these businesses and improve the quality of the experience for everyone.
"If tourism dropped off a cliff, the cityâ€s economy would suffer," said Jason Bram, an economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. "But it would not the same as if it happened in Orlando or Las Vegas where the whole economy is built around tourism."
WHAT KINDS OF JOBS DOES TOURISM CREATE?
About 230,000 New Yorkers already work in tourist related industries.
Tony Daniel, who runs a hotdog pushcart on Cedar Street in lower Manhattan, is one of them, and he loves tourists.
"Most people, when they come to me, they let me know they're from somewhere else, and they say they've heard about New York City hotdogs," he said. "I try to make them happy. If I can make them happy, then I’m happy because I make money, and that’s what it’s all about."
The bulk of jobs that the tourist industry creates, economists say, are low-skill and low-paying jobs.
According to Crain’s New York Business magazine, the average annual salary for the most available tourism related jobs include:
- Restaurant workers who earn $20,000 (not including tips)
- Retail workers who make about $25,000
- Museum and gallery employees who earn around $35,000
- And hotel workers who make about $40,000.
And while tourism can provide much needed jobs for some who have been laid off from other areas — like manufacturing, which has seen steep declines in recent years — the skills do not always translate.
"A cleaning person can move from one job to another," said Bram. "But someone who loses their job sewing in the garment industry can not necessarily make the transition to hotels or restaurants."
But Lilia Rach, associate dean at the New York University School for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management where Ryan Zenga studies, says the industry gets unfairly stereotyped as only creating entry-level jobs.
"It’s a fallacy that has gained mythic proportions," said Rach, who says she has seen a recent increase in students leaving other successful careers to join the tourism field. "There are scores of mid- and upper-level positions."
Rach points toward to companies like American Express, which bills itself as the "world’s largest travel agency" and employs about 5,000 people in New York City. The number of jobs in the hotel industry, which provides some of the higher paying jobs, including some union jobs, grew by 25 percent in the 1990’s.
"My students see an industry that promotes people, that values creativity, and they see how New York City has reinvented itself through tourism," said Rach. "And it’s definitely an area that is hiring."
In an effort to create more tourism-related jobs, Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently outlined an aggressive plan to double the Jacob Javits Convention Center and create a new convention, sports, and business district on the west side of Manhattan.
Many business leaders in the city have long argued that the convention center needs to be bigger. Although the city has the highest convention attendance of any city and is the second most popular convention center, for decades, officials have said the city loses out on dozens of more lucrative events because Javits is too small.
The mayor’s plan has been overshadowed by the debate over a stadium for the New York Jets that is also part of the plan. For 17 days a year, the stadium would be used for football games and other sporting events and concerts. The rest of the time, it will be a mid-size convention center, like the one in St. Louis.
Bloomberg said that the whole project would create 42,000 temporary construction jobs and 17,500 permanent new jobs.
"It will mean an end to seasonal layoffs in New York City's hotel industry forever," said Peter Ward, manager of Local 6, the hotel and restaurant employees union .
But watchdogs on both ends of the political spectrum question the grand predictions.
"All of the statistics about the projected benefits are overblown and exaggerated," said Jonathan Bowles of the Center for an Urban Future. "It is uncertain that this plan will lead to considerable new business for Javits."
For the Javits Convention Center to be really successful and to create new jobs in the hotel and restaurant industries, Bowles argues, New York must draw conventions made up of out-of-town visitors, not just people who live in the region. And the costs in New York â€“ where the average hotel rate is over $225 a night - are too high.
Dozens of other cities have also expanded their convention centers in recent years, including Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Few of these cities have realized the profits and visitors that they had hoped. Boston, which recently opened its $800 million new convention center, had hoped to draw 38 new conventions in its first year; so far it has only booked three.
Plans for 40 other such convention projects across the nation are also underway, even though there is no evidence that the convention industry is growing.
"How can New York City officials justify spending $1.4 billion to nearly double the size of Javits?" wrote Steve Malanga of the Manhattan Institute wrote in a New York Times op-ed. "Actually they are using the same argument that officials everywhere else have made to justify their white elephants; claiming that their convention project will somehow work better than those of other cities."
RESCUING OR RUINING NEW YORK?
Tourists present a dilemma for New York City and its neighborhoods: visitor’s money and the jobs they produce are desirable, but the crowds, chintzy stores, and higher prices at restaurants aren’t.
In the 1990’s Rudolph Giuliani made a big push to make the New York more visitor friendly, fashioning Times Square as a model for other places in the city. Giuliani shut down sex shops, cleaned up graffiti, and welcomed large chain stores from suburban malls to set up shop. Although many New Yorkers liked feeling safer and seeing less garbage, they complained about the "Disney-fication" of city streets.
One of the primary quality-of-life issues for neighborhoods like Greenwich Village is the noise, crowds, street vendors, and other activities that come along with tourism. The neighborhood's population can multiply numerous times on a nice summer day.
The phenomenon repeated itself elsewhere, prompting Kathryn Freed, a former council member from Lower Manhattan, to once lament that SoHo had become "a giant amusement parkâ€¦ and the tourists don’t even throw us peanuts."
Harlem, in particular, has seen both sides of the issue.
The neighborhood has long attracted busloads of visitors who cruise up and down 125th Street or eat a meal at Sylvia’s, but also quickly get back on the bus to go back to midtown for their hotel and shopping. But when the125th Street Business Improvement District was formed in 1993 to help organize local merchants and help turn tourism into profits, it was seen by some as a sign of gentrification.
Still when it comes to how much the city spends to promote itself, New York is not Las Vegas. The desert gambling mecca spends about $190 million a year to promote tourism. By contrast, New York City and Company, the city’s official tourism bureau, has a budget of just $14 million.
Despite the contradictions tourism can create, other neighborhoods like Chinatown and Lower Manhattan are launching new marketing efforts with events, websites, and "neighborhood brands" in the hope that tourists will create jobs for residents.
In February, Brooklyn opened its first tourism and visitors center in Borough Hall as a way to help lure people out of Manhattan. Although it is too early to see specific results, officials said, they are pleased that they haven’t received big complaints either.
"So far we have no reports of crowds of tourists taking over a neighborhood," said Michael Kadish, a spokesperson for Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz. "We haven’t become the Village."