By EMMA COURT and CHRISTIAN RICHEY
September 19, 2022 5:00 AM
New Yorkers famously hate the United Nations General Assembly meeting for the barrage of traffic and heavy security that accompany the presidents, prime ministers and royalty in town.
But after more than two years of pandemic-related disruptions to the city’s all-important tourism industry, this year’s gathering couldn’t come at a better time for New York’s economy. Especially for Midtown Manhattan, where office and retail vacancies have soared.
“Everyone complains about the General Assembly but boy have we missed it these last three years,” said Rob Byrnes, president of the East Midtown Partnership, a business improvement district.
US President Joe Biden, UK Prime Minister Liz Truss and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern are among the heads of state attending this year after Covid-19 moved the gathering online in 2020 and limited the in-person event in 2021.
The risk is that with dignitaries traveling to Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral and then on to that of former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the UN’s big event becomes something of a muted affair. UN Secretary-General António Guterres said it would be “inconceivable” for him to miss the opening of the General Debate, but that may well not be the case for many political VIPs.
Vijay Dandapani, president and CEO of the Hotel Association of New York City, estimates the event will draw around 8,000 visitors this year, compared with 10,000 in a typical, pre-Covid year. That is still be double the roughly 4,000 people who came to New York last year for the event.
Safety measures at this year’s session include unplanned traffic freezes, restrictions on 42nd Street in Midtown Manhattan and some road closures on the First Avenue upper roadway, New York Police Department officials said at a Friday briefing. Officials are monitoring threats, none of which are credible right now, Chief of Department Kenneth Corey said.
Bid to Bring Tourists Back
Despite the traffic, tourism-reliant businesses are looking at UN week and the whole hype around it not just as a headache, but as an opportunity to show the city off to a clientele they might have taken for granted in the past when New York required no introduction.
The hope now is that visitors will fall in love all over again with the city that launched many a movie, that they’ll post photos on social media, tell family and friends back home to come visit. New York has always depended on an international crowd to fuel its hospitality sector and feed the buzz.
New York expects to attract 56.7 million visitors in 2022, almost twice the number of visitors as the year before, according to data from NYC & Company, the city’s tourism arm. Still, that’s about 10 million people short of 2019, a record year for the city.
Samantha Baghal, a 25-year-old medical student, was among the tourists visiting New York City this month. Baghal, who is from Birmingham, Alabama, and her sister came to see a Harry Styles concert and take in the city. The trip was their first time back since 2019, she said.
“It was kind of hard to travel anywhere, really, just because of the pandemic,” Baghal said.
Domestic travel has rebounded sooner than international travel, which had been restricted by travel bans that were only lifted in November of 2021. Many parts of Asia, including China, still have restrictions in place. And for visitors from South America and Europe, the strong dollar and record inflation has made New York that much more expensive to visit.
That’s contributed to year-to-date hotel occupancy declines of about 22% from 2019, according to the NYC & Company data.
Hotel and restaurant owners, though, say things are looking up: Forward-booking pace for hotel rooms in September — when events including the UN General Assembly and New York Fashion Week take place — was up nearly 70%, compared with the year prior, according to NYC & Co.
The Loews Regency, a high-end hotel located on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, expects its 351 rooms to be fully booked this week, with a half dozen country delegations to the UN staying there, said Alex Tisch, president of Loews Hotels & Co. Business is up 50% compared with last year, and in line with 2019 levels, he said. The hotel, known for its famous seen-and-be-seen “power breakfast,” also expects to be full each morning.
International tourists are “starting to get their feet back in the water, and hopefully it’s the start of broader pickup of international travel into the US,” Tisch said.
Tourists who last came to the city in 2020 or 2021 will now find it busier, with virtually all Covid restrictions now gone. Those include the onetime requirement that restaurant diners be vaccinated, which left Brazil’s unvaccinated President Jair Bolsonaro eating pizza on the sidewalk at last year’s meeting.
While masks are no longer required in the city’s public transit, attendees at the annual UN gathering will have to wear a face covering in the UN headquarters at most times, according to information provided to delegations over the summer. To enter the building, meanwhile, attendees will have to confirm they don’t have Covid or its symptoms. It’s not clear how or if these precautions will be enforced.
Event Space for $50,000
Governments and nonprofits also won’t be able to hold so-called side events onsite at the UN, pushing off the traditional dinners, cocktail parties and panels online or to private venues like the Harvard club. More than 100 such gatherings are scheduled to take place anyway, at venues like diplomatic missions, hotels and high-end restaurants like Tavern on the Green in Central Park, according to a schedule seen by Bloomberg News.
Event space can also come at a premium: one diplomat was quoted $50,000 for a meeting room, said Richard Gowan, UN director for the International Crisis Group, a global conflict prevention organization.
Copinette, a restaurant serving French-influenced foods two blocks from the UN, may hire a staffer to meet the higher demand it is seeing. That includes 20-person parties, a change from the six-person groups they served last year.
“It’s like a puzzle trying to fit everyone as best we can and trying not to turn anyone away,” said co-owner Amy Babic, who expects a 30% bump in revenue for the week.
Tudor City Steakhouse, down the street from the UN building, said it has nearly 10 heads of state booked for meals during the week and 30 parties related to the event, in line with pre-Covid bookings.
It’s a “great feeling, being alive again,” said owner Mirso Lekic.