Fifth Avenue Shows Signs of Recovery


Recovery of Fifth Avenue

Foot traffic returns to Fifth Avenue. Photo by Rui Dang

In front of St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue, an eager woman takes a group picture with her family.

“It is amazing that we can find and buy whatever we want here,” said Gabriella Delgado, a tourist from Colombia who traveled with her family to New York City for summer vacation. “But the bad thing is that all the time it’s too crowded.”

For the retail businesses on Fifth Avenue that had to shut down during the pandemic, “the bad thing” is what they’ve been longing for the last several months. According to an economic impact report provided by the Fifth Avenue Association, an organization that oversees and promotes business development, COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on retail stores located on the famous shopping avenue.

The loss of tourism and employees shifting to remote work has halted business for more than a year since the city shutdown in March 2020. As of January this year, the total number of visits to Fifth Avenue dropped by 67% compared to pre-pandemic levels. But with an increased vaccination rate across the city, Fifth Avenue is bustling with people again, even though the Delta variant brings new challenges.

“We are seeing signs of improvement,” said Jerome Barth, the president of the Fifth Avenue Association. “We’re seeing that consumers are spending money when they visit the stores, and that plays to the strength of Fifth Avenue.”

As businesses started to reopen in April, Barth said the foot traffic to Fifth Avenue has increased significantly over the summer, including a 30% increase in the number of people who visited the avenue from May to June and another 30% increase from June to July.

“The fact that New York is a leader in vaccination in the U.S. makes it a more attractive destination, particularly right now for national travelers, but later for international travelers as well,” said Barth.

Carlos Arrambide, an engineer from Monterrey, Mexico, visited the city with his wife for their 20th wedding anniversary. They made several plans to fully explore New York City, and Fifth Avenue was one of the must-see places on their list.

“We have already been vaccinated, so we’re more comfortable to travel now,” said Arrambide. “Also, we have seen a lot of people wearing their masks in the city, which is also very good for public health.”

Vaccinations and the influx of people returning to Fifth Avenue has given retail businesses confidence to keep their doors open.

“I think people are just a little bit more comfortable to go out and shop in person rather than just online because they feel safer,” said Britney Smith, a manager at the Swatch store on 711 Fifth Ave.

Despite the uptick in tourism, experts predict it will take a long time for the city to fully recover. According to NYC & Company, the city’s official tourism marketing organization, the number of total visitors dropped from its record high of 66.6 million in 2019 to 22.3 million in 2020. While it’s predicted that domestic travel to New York City will return to peak, pre-pandemic levels by 2023, international travel will not fully recover until 2025.

“The recovery of tourism is difficult,” said Jukka Laitamaki, a professor at the Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality at New York University. “Leisure travel has gone back fairly well. But business travel is lacking. International travel is lacking because there are so many restrictions for flights coming from Asia, Brazil, Latin America, or Europe to the United States. And finally, conference and convention travel are also a problem.”

And stores that rely almost exclusively on tourism have taken significant hits as well. Unlike large, brand-name flagship stores on Fifth Avenue that attract both local residents and tourists, the iconic I Love NY gift shops are still struggling as tourism steadily returns.

“The business is still bad,” said Zakia Sultana, a manager of two I Love NY shops on Fifth Avenue. “It’s not even comparable to what we used to have before the pandemic. We are far away from it.”

Sultana said she did see a small increase in the number of customers at her shops when vaccines became available. But with the Delta variant, she said she’s worried that business will get worse again.

Barth has a similar concern. “What’s missing is really the international tourists on the one hand and the presence of everyday office workers on the other, since we have not yet come back to work. And that’s being delayed now,” he said.

To attract and encourage more people to visit Fifth Avenue, Barth and his team are planning to hold various events to create one-of-kind experiences for visitors.

“Most significantly, we are planning some high-quality decorations and a wonderful animation at the Pulitzer Fountain for holidays,” said Barth, about the famous fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel. “Holiday is really an important moment of the year on Fifth Avenue, and we want to make sure that this year is spectacular.”