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Tourists are coming back to New York City as pandemic restrictions ease and 'feel the city reawakening'

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NEW YORK – It's been a slow year for "the city that never sleeps," which was unheard of before the COVID-19 pandemic virtually shut down tourist activity in March 2020. And visitors to the city are noticing changes.

Lucy Nelles, 23, visited New York City at the beginning of April. Nelles, who lives in Miami, lived in the city for four years while attending Parsons School of Design. But when the pandemic began, she and her boyfriend left to be with family.

Returning for the first time, Nelles stayed for four days, but the New York she remembered had changed.

"The city is a lot quieter than it used to be, and we were sad to see a lot of our favorite restaurants permanently closed," she said, noting she enjoyed the visit but would advise others to wait.

►Don't pronounce New York City dead just yet: Tourists are coming, and they like what they see

Central Park is starting to bloom for spring 2021.
Blossoms in Central Park.
Central Park flowers are blooming in April and are ready to welcome tourists. Central Park flowers are blooming in April and are ready to welcome tourists. Central Park flowers are blooming in April and are ready to welcome tourists. MORGAN HINES/USA TODAY

Ana Linares, 38, a travel influencer and photographer, who is planning to return to the city for her second visit since January, agreed but finds a quieter New York to be appealing.

"It is definitely less crowded than before, which I personally enjoy as I can get to visit museums and places that tend to be crowded on a regular basis," Linares told USA TODAY.

But coming out of a winter period, New York City is quite literally blooming – with trees blossoming on Manhattan's street corners, tulips brightening avenue flower beds and temperatures hovering in the balmy 60s – encouraging visitors and New Yorkers alike to flock to outdoor dining locations and spend time in Central Park.

It's like one can "feel the city reawakening," Fred Dixon, president and CEO of NYC & Co., which promotes New York City tourism, told USA TODAY. "New York is not going to be down for very long, and we're already seeing it stand up." 

More than a year after the COVID-19 pandemic shut down New York City, it is finally hosting more travelers. 

Travel restrictions are loosening in the Big Apple. International travelers no longer need to quarantine if they are vaccinated. The state also dropped a domestic quarantine requirement for vaccinated travelers.

Other restrictions are loosening in the city, too, after New Yorkers endured months under some of the strictest rules in the nation. Indoor dining capacity expanded to 50% in March with the 11 p.m. restaurant curfew extended to midnight last week. 

Some Manhattan attractions that have been closed are opening their doors, including Central Park's Loeb Boathouse, which reopened on March 29, and Frick Madison, a temporary location for the Frick Collection, which opened on March 18.

The same goes for restaurants and cultural exhibits across the city for which capacity is expanding, too. Museums and zoos will be allowed to expand to 50% capacity, and movie theaters will be allowed to have 33% of capacity filled starting Monday. 

"It feels good. We know that the rebuilding of tourism is going to be gradual, going to take some time, but we're very optimistic," Dixon said, noting that the company's tourism forecast shows that "as much of half of our 2019 record volume could return by the end of the year."

He added that now is a great time to visit because of the lower volume of travelers. That said, travelers will need to weigh that against the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's continued guidance to limit nonessential travel, even though it is now considered by the health agency to be lower risk for people who are fully vaccinated

"This is one of those special moments that come along once in a lifetime," he said, noting many of New York's cultural offerings, including museums, botanical gardens and tourism sites are open and operating with smaller crowds. The curtain remains down on Broadway, with many performances open to the public anticipated to return in September.

And the city is angling to get visitors back. On Wednesday, NYC & Co. and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a $30 million campaign to attract tourists that will launch in June.

"When tourists come back, so many jobs come back, so much energy comes back," de Blasio said during a press conference Wednesday. "This city is well on its way to regaining everything we lost and then surpassing again."

Foot traffic is on the rise

Foot traffic is on the rise

A variety of indicators show tourism is already starting to come back.

Foot traffic in Times Square, for example, is on the rise. The area, often a hot spot for tourists to pose with characters such as Elmo, Mickey Mouse and the famed Naked Cowboy in front of bright lights, is seeing an uptick in visitors.

In January and February Times Square saw roughly 90,000 average daily visitors, according to Times Square's official website.But in March, on average, Times Square had almost 111,000 visitors daily with one of the warmest days of the month, March 27, seeing more than 166,000 visitors.

That's up significantly from April of last year, just after the start of the pandemic, when the iconic New York hot spot had roughly 33,000 average daily visitors.

That's not to say things are totally back to normal. Daily average foot traffic was down 67.1% compared to March 2019, according to Times Square.

And according to STR, a global hospitality data and analytics company, New York is seeing its highest hotel occupancy levels since the pandemic was declared in March 2020. For the week ending April 3, 55.2% of available hotel rooms were occupied. 

By comparison, the New York market had an occupancy rate of 86.3% for the year 2019. 

"We're encouraged to see occupancy increasing; these are the highest levels we've seen," Alison Hoyt, STR’s senior director told USA TODAY, noting that the trend is now reflected in national hotel occupancy numbers, as well. "It still a long way to recover to pre-pandemic levels, but it's encouraging going into the summer season to see occupancy increasing." 

COVID-19 vaccine spurs tourism's return

COVID-19 vaccine spurs tourism's return

Dixon said that the city's uptick in tourism is in part thanks to the COVID-19 vaccine distribution

"I think the vaccines are definitely enabling the restart. Certainly here in the Northeast it's no secret we were the most severely battered by COVID," Dixon said, noting the safety of residents and visitors is paramount.

According to USA TODAY's COVID-19 vaccine tracker, around 42.2% of people in the United States have had at least one shot and around 28.5% have been fully vaccinated as of Sunday; 46% of New York state's population has received one dose, and 32% of the population is fully vaccinated.

Linares, the photographer and travel influencer who resides in Miami and used to live in New York City, was away almost a year before returning at the end of January. 

She's looking forward to returning for a second visit at the end of the month and said she felt safe during her last trip and imagines she will "feel even more safe now than vaccines have been rolled out." 

And Emma Hawes, 30, from Nashville, Tennessee, felt safe, too, with mask requirements and sanitizer stations at tourist attractions. She stayed in New York for four nights and five days this month. 

"Overall, I felt like the businesses, whether it was a restaurant, store or museum did a great job of spacing people out," she said.

While she said it was quieter than during a visit many years ago, she noticed how full Central Park was with "outside classes, engagement parties and kids' birthday gatherings." Plus, there was a long line to enter the Metropolitan Museum of Art Saturday afternoon.

Albert Nyarko, 20, who is originally from Ghana and lives in Indianapolis, has visited the city twice since the pandemic started, despite having never been to the city prior. After trips last summer and in January, Nyarko has decided he wants to make a permanent change.

"People in the city are very nice, and there’s so (many) fun activities to do in the city," he told USA TODAY, noting he plans to move to New York City soon.

And Hawes plans to come back soon, too.

"I've already written down things of what I want to do again in NYC," she said. "Maybe next time it will include seeing the inside of the public library, a Broadway show like 'American Utopia' or a taping of 'The Tonight Show'."

►Fully vaccinated against COVID-19? CDC says it's safe to travel but still recommends staying home

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