From NYC mayor Bloomberg, a positive spin on visitor decline

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Three days after being sworn in for his third term as mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg seemed determine to paint last year's nearly 4% drop in visitor numbers, a bigger decline than in 2001, in a positive light.



At a news conference last week in Brooklyn, Bloomberg announced that the city received an estimated 45.3 million visitors in 2009.

"Although this represents a 3.9% decline compared to 2008, we originally had predicted a 10% drop in visitors," Bloomberg said. "That means we actually received about [1.25 million] more visitors than we anticipated."

What Bloomberg did not mention was that the 3.9% drop marked the first decline in the city's visitation numbers since 2001, when the number of visitors slumped 2.8%, to 35.2 million, down from 36.2 million in 2000.

Rather, the mayor focused on the fact that despite the dramatic drop, the 45.3 million visitors makes New York, "for the first time since 1990, the most popular tourist destination in the U.S., ahead of both Las Vegas and Orlando."

"Next thing you know, Mickey Mouse will be moving to the Big Apple," the mayor quipped.

It turns out, however, that Bloomberg's comparison of New York to other markets was based on estimates. According to a forecast commissioned by the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc. in December, total visitation to Orlando is expected to decline 9.4%, from 48.9 million in 2008 to 44.3 million visitors in 2009.

But Susan Greer, associate vice president of publicity at the Orlando CVB, noted that "due to the complexities of collecting, tabulating and reporting the numbers, we don't expect to have 2009 volume estimates until May. I'm not sure what source New York is basing their claim on."

Indeed, New York was quick to jump to the conclusion that it not only beat out Orlando and Las Vegas as the top U.S. destination overall, but that it received more international visitors in 2009 than any other U.S. city, "outdrawing our nearest rival, L.A., by a ratio of 2-to-1," Bloomberg said.

New York received an estimated 8.6 million international visitors in 2009, according to the city. But, like Orlando, Los Angeles does not have its final 2009 numbers.

Nor does New York, for that matter.

"We don't have a complete 2009 estimate," said David Goodger, a senior economist within Tourism Economics, a tourism consulting company that works with NYC & Company, the city's tourism and marketing arm, on visitor projections.

He added that "like any of these things, there's always an error term," meaning a certain potential percentage of error between the initial estimate and the final, more conclusive results for the year.

Goodger said that a more complete picture of New York's 2009 visitation figures would likely be ready sometime in February or March.

Spin aside, Bloomberg also reported that employment in the leisure and hospitality sector rebounded at the end of 2009, inching above pre-recession levels.

Approximately 311,000 people were employed in the leisure and hospitality industry in New York as of November, compared with 307,000 in late 2007. Employment in the food service/restaurants and bars sector grew 1.1%, and employment at hotels grew 2.6% compared with 2008.

"Despite these gains, we know many of our hotels, restaurants, attractions and shops are still struggling as a result of the downturn," Bloomberg said. "But the jobs they have added serve as an important indication that our efforts are paying off and that 2010 promises to be a year of growth."

Joining Bloomberg at the news conference were Robert Lieber, deputy mayor for economic development, and George Fertitta, CEO of NYC & Company.

For 2010, New York officials expect 46.7 million total visitors, a 3.2% increase over 2009 but still below the 47 million visitors in 2008.

Beyond that, Fertitta said, the city "still holds onto an ambitious goal of attracting 50 million visitors annually by 2012."

The tourists who visited New York last year spent approximately $28 billion during their stay in the city, and international visitors traditionally spend nearly five times as much as their domestic counterparts, according to city officials.

Additionally, New York sold 23.6 million room nights in 2009, 1.3% more than in 2008. The city's total room inventory increased 6% to 81,500 hotel rooms in 2009, and hotel tax revenue generated roughly $315 million.

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