Weak dollar makes the Big Apple a shopper's paradise for tourists

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 December, 2007, 12:00am

New York

Ever since graphic designer Milton Glaser created the now ubiquitous 'I love New York' logo in 1977, it has been easier to tell tourists from New Yorkers - the locals, no matter how proud they are about the city, are less likely to declare their feelings by wearing a T-shirt with the red heart.

But this winter, tourists are largely marked out by another sign - shopping bags, lots of them. 'Look, we come here for shopping,' said Spanish couple Sami and Julia. Sporting bags from Tiffany's and Saks, the excitement of a shopping kill sparkled in their eyes. 'There are so many bargains and we want to buy everything,' said Sami, adding that their shopping budget is Euro6,000 (HK$67,000).

The two are among the 1 million foreign tourists who are expected to spend their money in the Big Apple during the holiday season this year. The weak US dollar has made it a bargain-basement city, at least for Europeans.

The city is expected to host 8 million international visitors this year, a 7 per cent jump from last year. This is all the more remarkable because foreign tourists to the US have dropped 17 per cent since 2000, partly because of tighter visa controls after September 11, 2001. New York is the only major city in the US that is still seeing an increase in foreign visitors.

'New York has become the number one destination of international travellers,' said Kimberly Spell, spokeswoman for NYC & Company, the city's tourism authority.

This is exactly what Mayor Mike Bloomberg has designed for the city. Two years ago, the mayor set a goal to attract 50 million visitors, including Americans, to the city annually by 2015.

Many promotions have been introduced, including most recently 'This is New York City,' a one-year, US$30 million advertising campaign in 10 countries and four continents, and 'Just ask the locals', which called on residents to help tourists when needed.

Last year, foreign visitors made up only 17 per cent of the city's tourists but contributed 50 per cent of the US$24.7 billion spent there. There are still no statistics for this year but shops from department store Macy's to toy shop FAO Schwarz have all said they are benefiting from the foreign influx.

But the relationship between the locals and tourists is more complicated, as they compete for footpaths, taxis, restaurants and theatres.

'Sometimes it's frustrating. You have to know how to avoid them,' said lawyer Jeremy Weinberg, who uses underground tunnels around his office at the Rockefeller Centre to stay away from the crowds.

Local media have published tongue-in-cheek guides one after another with headlines like 'How to survive the 'I love NY' hordes'. Time Out New York even jokingly sent a fake police officer to ticket tourists for their 'annoying out-of-towner behaviour'.

These seem to provide additional proof of New Yorkers' infamous reputation for rudeness. But to Ms Spell, there is nothing to worry about. 'Any misperceptions people might have about what it's like to visit New York city would be cleared up once they come here,' she said.

Yet Jung Hee-jung, a Korean student travelling around the world with friends, found that 'New Yorkers said too many 'excuse me's'.' She figured out from the tone that they were not 'excusing' themselves but blaming her for standing in their way.

But there are New Yorkers like Joe Piazza who don't run away from tourists but run towards them. The 77-year-old retiree lingers at Rockefeller Plaza dressed in his outlandish, home-made festival costume.

When tourists take an interest, he calls them over to take a photo with him. He has been doing so every holiday season since he retired 20 years ago.

'I don't want money. I just want people to smile,' Mr Piazza said. 'Because tourists, they make our city more colourful.'