New York mayor unveils 'Just Ask the Locals' ad campaign

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NEW YORK -- Mayor Michael Bloomberg last week sharply criticized the Bush administration for failing to appreciate the importance of tourism to the U.S. economy and to America's long-term security.

The government's failure to take remedial steps, he said, is one of "many reasons" that international tourist arrivals in the U.S. dropped 17% between 2000 and 2006.

For one thing, he said, tourists find customs and immigration personnel rude, which "diminishes our competitive edge; that has to change at the federal level."

Customs and immigration staffers need "some direction and an administration that makes it a high priority to fix this," Bloomberg said, adding that it could be done in 12 months.

Bloomberg, a two-term mayor, recently left the Republican Party and is frequently mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, though he has steadfastly denied that he is interested in running in 2008.

Responding to questions from reporters, Bloomberg said he had talked to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about making it easier for prospective visitors to get visas. "We forget how our country was built" by immigrants, he said. "Washington just doesn't understand that we compete globally" not just for tourists but for scientists and even for athletes.

"We can't put our heads in the sand, Bloomberg said. "Yes, we have to be secure, but that doesn't mean we can't welcome people here."

The mayor said the U.S. couldn't really be secure "if we close ourselves to the world."

Bloomberg made his remarks during a news conference at which he rolled out a marketing and advertising campaign for New York City. Called "Just Ask the Locals," the campaign is designed to make visitors feel more welcome in the Big Apple and to thank them for coming to town.

The media event, which was jointly sponsored by American Airlines and NYC & Company, the city's tourism marketing organization, played out before an audience of about 150 reporters inside American's new $1.3 billion terminal at New York's Kennedy Airport (see related story, "American takes the wraps off spacious terminal at Kennedy."). A third of the attendees were international journalists flown in from around the world.

Jonathan Tisch, chairman of NYC & Company, pointed out that while the U.S. was suffering losses in the international tourism arena, New York was one of only two cities to report gains in international arrivals in 2006. He stressed the value of that business: International travelers accounted for 18% of visitors but accounted for 45% of visitor spending in the city, Tisch said.

And yet, the U.S. makes it hard for people to get their visas and makes the arrival experience so uncomfortable that prospective visitors worry more about that entry than about crime or terrorism in the U.S., Tisch said. To top that off, the U.S. nationally spends "virtually nothing" to promote this country as a destination.

Tisch said the U.S. needed elected officials who have "the will to compete for travelers."

"Our competitors spend hundreds of millions of dollars and make tourism a cabinet-level job," he said.

While the attitudes and actions of customs and immigration personnel are beyond his purview, Bloomberg said New York would do what it could to take care of its interests locally.

"We're crazy not to do everything possible [to make visitors welcome]," he said.

The mayor noted that Readers Digest last year named New York the world's most courteous city, a description that flies in he face of impressions created by late-night comedians. Unfortunately, he added, not enough people know about these kinds of accolades.

To help remedy that problem, NYC & Company has lined up a number of resident celebrities who will appear in ads, give advice on places to see and offer tips on visiting New York.

The launch celebrities are actors Robert DeNiro and Julianne Moore; former New York Giants running back Tiki Barber; actor and comedian Jimmy Fallon; and celebrated artist Chuck Close. Each offers insight based on personal experience. NYC & Company CEO George Fertitta said the celebrities chose their own messages without coaching.

In one ad, DeNiro is photographed on the streets of Tribeca, home to the Tribeca Film Festival which he founded.

"The best way to see downtown? Walk," advises DeNiro.

To kick off the advertising component, American Airlines donated $4.5 million in advertising space to line the corridors of its new terminal with the celebrity ads through the end of this year.

Gerard Arpey, American's chairman, president and CEO, said the carrier was "proud" to support Bloomberg's goal of attracting 50 million visitors to New York by 2015. The print ads will appear on 150 of the city's bus shelters citywide and 200 street-pole banners.

Maps of walking tours suggested by the celebrities and cards highlighting their insider tips on navigating the city will be distributed to visitors at American's terminal and in hotels. Videos will be shown in the city's 400 or so taxis.

Celebrities' taped advice can be heard by dialing (212) NEW YORK. Additional tips can be read at www.nycvisit.com.

Also, as part of the "Just Ask the Locals" launch, the city fielded a 50-person team to distribute the celebrity walking-tour maps and tip sheets. They also offered assistance and distributed lapel buttons highlighting neighborhoods throughout the city's five boroughs.

Wearing identifying black T-shirts, for two days they manned 20 areas that tourists frequent in Manhattan. NYC & Company hopes to identify volunteers who will perform a similar role in the future.

The "Just Ask the Locals" project is visible to the visitor who has already arrived in New York. By inviting international media, NYC & Company aimed to get its message in front of prospective travelers, too.

The mayor also used the press event as a platform, calling on New Yorkers to do their part in stepping forward to welcome visitors and to thank them for visiting. On the whole, though, Bloomberg said he was confident that residents would do their part.

"We are not shy," he said. "Giving advice comes naturally to us."

When asked for his tips for the international traveler, he said, "The most impressive thing is to walk the streets. Don't limit yourself to mid-Manhattan. There are fascinating neighborhoods all over, and it's safe anywhere. Of course, there are the must-sees, but you should see more than that."

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to Nadine Godwin at [email protected].

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