NEW YORK -- British Airways and Virgin Atlantic synchronized takeoffs from London Heathrow to New York JFK on Nov. 8 in a celebration of the reopening of U.S. borders to vaccinated international travelers -- and perhaps no city was as eager to welcome them as New York.
The pandemic has had an outsized impact on the hospitality industry globally. In the U.S., however, even as domestic travel has returned in many parts of the country, urban areas have still not recovered.
Some of that is due to the slow return of office workers and corporate travelers. But on the leisure side, many urban markets rely on foreign tourists to fill beds and coffers. To put it in perspective, U.S. borders had been closed to most visitors for 604 days.
And no city in the country depends more on international visitation than the Big Apple.
"We can't understate the importance of today for New York City in particular," said NYC & Company CEO Fred Dixon at an event with British Airways at one of New York's most recognizable landmarks -- the Empire State Building -- timed around both flights' arrivals.
Dixon said that while the city has been doing "fairly well" with domestic visitation, its hotel occupancy has been averaging in the 60% range, down from percentages around the high 80s it would normally experience at this time of year.
In addition, Dixon said it takes the spending of four domestic travelers to equal the spending of one international one. Foreign tourists account for 20% of visitor volume but 50% of the spending. They also account for half of hotel room nights sold.
"It's very easy to quickly see how vital they are to the city's full recovery," Dixon said. "So today is a symbolic moment for us, because it gives us the opportunity to regain what we've lost in so many ways. ... It's the last piece of the jigsaw puzzle to really to fall into place."
The relief around the reopening goes both ways. Claire Bentley, managing director of British Airways Holidays, said that North America is the company's most important destination.
"It's a core part of our business," she said during the event, adding that good news like this helps drive bookings. "Every time there's been a positive announcement from the government, we've seen real positive increase in demand. ... I'm thinking we're going to see another good blip."
Sean Doyle, CEO of BA, said at the event that the airline is "back with a vengeance."
"We have eight flights a day from New York from today," Doyle said. "We've got 30 flights a day to cities all over the U.S. from London. And the bookings are very, very strong."
Chris Thompson, CEO of Brand USA, said he has already heard of record airline call volumes once the reopening was announced.
"I think, at least as it relates to London and all across Europe, there's a lot of promised vacations for kids and families that have been unrealized for so long," Thompson said.
Thompson isn't concerned that international travelers don't want to visit the U.S.
"The demand is universally strong across the majority of our markets," he said. "It's never really been a demand issue. It's all just been a facilitation issue."
It may take some time for travel to regain its footing. According to the Tourism Economics research firm, inbound travel to the U.S. won't surpass 2019 levels before 2025.
Aside from general concerns about the pandemic and health that might keep some travelers home, Thompson and Dixon both acknowledged that there are other challenges to a full tourism recovery.
"There's no question the labor shortage and supply chain shortages are real," Dixon said. "And we know there's going to be bumps for some time. But the hoteliers have been preparing for quite a while. I was speaking to some who have been buying in advance and have been scheduling their staff to ramp back up in advance. So I think everyone is doing everything they can to be prepared for this moment."
While it is Brand USA's job to market to and entice international visitors to the U.S., Thompson said recovery depends on many factors that are "outside of our control, not the least of which were getting our borders open. Now you're going to see our airline partners ramping up connectivity, so routes that were canceled or routes that were scaled back come back to where demand dictates."
Brand USA's marketing plan
"All of those challenges have nothing to do with demand, nothing to do with the aspirational nature of the destination, just our ability to be able to deliver and gain back the confidence of international travelers," Thompson said.
"The combination of that and varying levels affecting recovery are what's kind of making it still a little bit uncertain at the moment."
The marketing organization has its work cut out for it, and Thompson said it has a three-prong plan: an international influencer campaign to showcase the readiness of the U.S. and gain consumer confidence; a welcome message; and partnerships with travel trade, travel media, airlines and other members of the travel ecosystem on digital platforms to help push intent to travel down the funnel to actual bookings.