Holiday Tourists Make Their Mark, For Better or For Worse



Every year, tourists and native New Yorkers alike flock to Rockefeller Plaza to see the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree. This year, however, the crowds around Rockefeller seemed to be larger than usual. Photo: AP.

When most people envision the winter holidays, they think of seasonal luxuries like hot chocolate, peppermint, ice skating, scarves, and presents. But New Yorkers don’t get off that easily. In addition to enjoying all the traditional treats that the holidays have to offer, New Yorkers also have to deal with massive crowds of tourists. It’s just one of the few downsides of living in the city that never sleeps.

This year, it seems as if the holiday surge of tourists is bigger than ever.

“I’m not sure if I’m imagining it, but I definitely feel like I have to dodge more confused-looking tourists this year than I usually do,” said Catherine Smith, 31, who lives in Chelsea and was walking through Rockefeller Center last week.

The plaza may have attracted more tourists than usual last week, considering last Wednesday’s lighting of the famous Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, but whether this was merely a temporary boost — or part of a larger trend — remains to be seen.

If Smith’s instincts are correct, and the official amount of tourists in New York turns out to be higher this year than in previous years, then the upsurge would be part of a general increase in tourism that New York has seen since 2001. In 2010, the city had almost 50 million visitors — up 6.8 percent from 2009 — according to NYC & Company, a private non-profit corporation which has become the city’s official tourism organization since its founding in 1999.

Many of Rockefeller Center’s recent tourists were from Western Europe — especially France, Germany, and Italy.

“I’m taking advantage of the exchange rate now before the European economy collapses,” said Marcello Giordano, 29, a tourist from Rome, Italy. “I keep hearing that the euro is losing value — that the economy might crash — so I figure I’ll live it up before that happens. If it happens. I’ll cross my fingers.”

Giordano may have made a smart move: German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy met on Monday in a last-ditch effort to save the euro, which has been drastically losing value recently. Also, coincidentally, Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti unveiled a plan Sunday to increase taxes for citizens. If Giordano had decided to travel here after the tax increase, he might have had a significantly smaller amount of money to spend on black cashmere gloves at Bloomingdale’s.

Rockefeller Center might see more giant crowds of tourists in the very near future: in addition to the famous Christmas tree, there’s also the new 3-D Rockettes show at nearby Radio City Music Hall — and, of course, the ice skating rink.

“I would never miss an opportunity to skate at the Rockefeller rink,” said Tony Browning, 24, a tourist from Dayton, Ohio. “I mean, hasn’t, like, every romantic comedy had a scene there? That’s probably wrong, but I definitely remember at least Liz Lemon from 30 Rock going there.”

Lucky for tourists, some New Yorkers don’t mind their presence that much.

“I don’t really get that bothered by them,” said James West, 21, a student at City College of New York. “If anything, they’re good for people-watching. Just grab some coffee, sit on some steps, and entertain yourself by watching them stumble around confused.”

Other New Yorkers  rely on tourists for keeping their business up and running.

Mike Ali, who runs a food cart across from Radio City Music Hall, gets most of his holiday business from tourists attending the Rockettes show or checking out the Christmas tree.

“Some days, of course, we don’t get anybody, but it does seem like we’ve had more tourists than usual come up to the stand this year,” he said.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, income from tourism amounted to 2.5% of New York City’s gross domestic product in 2010 — up from 2.3% in 2009. If tourists continue to flock here throughout December, then that number might increase yet again and the city’s economy will receive a much-needed — if small — boost.