‘Be Nice to Tourists’: New York’s Arts Scene Needs International Visitors

When many readers in Toronto, London, Paris and Hong Kong open their newspapers on Monday, they will be greeted with a full-page advertisement from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

“We reopened in August 2020, but have been missing one critical thing — you, our international visitors,” the ad will say. “The Met is only The Met when it is being enjoyed daily by visitors from around the world.”

The unusual display — museum officials say they do not believe they have ever run a global marketing campaign of this scope aimed at visitors so far from their Fifth Avenue home — is a signal of the thirst among New York arts institutions for foreign visitors to return. American borders reopened to international tourists this week for the first time since the early months of 2020. Their return represents another milestone in New York’s reopening, and few sectors of the city’s economy are more of a draw to foreign travelers — or lean more heavily on them for revenue — than the arts.

“It’s crucial that we recover this segment,” said Chris Heywood, a vice president for global communications at the city’s tourism agency, NYC & Company. “Arts and culture are going to lead our recovery. That is the backbone.”

Indeed, billions of dollars and many thousands of jobs are at stake. Employment in New York City’s arts, entertainment and recreation sector plummeted by 66 percent from December 2019 to December 2020, according to a state report. Even as things reopen, and workers are hired back, challenges remain: The tourism agency forecasts that visitor spending in 2021 will be about $24 billion, roughly half of what was spent in 2019.

International visitors typically make up about a fifth of the city’s visitors, but they tend to stay longer and spend more than domestic visitors: what they spend accounts for roughly half of all tourism dollars.

On Broadway, tourists from outside the United States comprise about 15 percent of the audience during a traditional season, said Charlotte St. Martin, the president of the Broadway League. (There is a reason that the website of “The Lion King” is lined with flags indicating where to click for translations of its sales pitch in French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Chinese and Spanish.)

The Metropolitan Opera said that international ticket sales have accounted for about 20 percent of total box office revenues during the last five seasons. And more than half of New York’s international visitors go visit an art gallery or museum during their trip, according to data from NYC & Company. One in four go to some kind of live performance when they are in the city — be it a concert, play, musical, a dance performance or opera.

So New York has been missing them.

“This is a big step forward,” said Victoria Bailey, the executive director of Theater Development Fund, the nonprofit organization that operates the TKTS booth, where about 70 percent of the tickets are bought by tourists and roughly half of those sales are to foreign travelers.

Groups catering to tourists from overseas are gearing up. Broadway Inbound, a subsidiary of the Shubert Organization that is responsible for the wholesale distribution of show tickets, recently restarted a marketing program that helps highlight more than 20 partnering shows to group buyers, tour operators and the travel industry.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has moved some of its marketing dollars overseas in part because the it has hit something of a “ceiling” on attendance, Ken Weine, a spokesman for museum, said. Before the pandemic, international travelers accounted for about a third of the museum’s visitors; these days, the number of people who come to the museum daily is about half of what it was before March of 2020.

Musicals like “The Phantom of the Opera,” which have leveraged the interest of tourists who want to see a long-running show that they are familiar with, have purposefully invested advertising dollars during this holiday season and placed their displays in high-traffic, touristy areas. That is why there is an imposing three-dimensional statue of the Phantom’s mask strategically plopped next to the TKTS booth and outdoor advertising for “Chicago” all over Times Square.

Foreign travelers have not yet begun buying tickets to “Phantom” in material numbers, said Aaron Lustbader, the general manager of the show. But officials hope that will change soon.

“Typically, January and February are two of the very weakest months of the year and this has certainly been true for ‘Phantom,’” he said. “Our hope is that due to pent-up demand of nearly two years and assuming it would take most people at least a few weeks to put together plans, that the city sees a far higher number of international tourists in these otherwise lean months.”

Barry Weissler, a producer of “Chicago,” said the show typically partners with online travel sites to serve ads and try to spark the interest of inbound, foreign tourists ahead of their flights to New York.

And for their part, tour operators and ticket vendors overseas say they have started to see their New York business bounce back — somewhat.

Eric Lang, who runs an Amsterdam-based travel and information website that helps vacationers plan trips to New York, said his ticket sales in October were up to about 5 percent of normal. This month, sales are closer to 15 to 20 percent of what he had come to expect for this period, before the pandemic. “Growth from zero,” he said.

Lee Burns, a product manager for AttractionTickets.com, which sells event tickets to people and travel agents in the United Kingdom, said he thought the timing of the American reopening might have come “a bit too late” to capitalize on the 2021 holiday season. So far, he said, his company’s New York sales are at only about 10 percent of what is normal for the holiday season.

“People are booking now for next Thanksgiving and next Christmas,” he said. Nonetheless, he said he and his team are trying to figure out if there is any sort of deal they can offer for this Black Friday.

Those who come to New York from overseas will need to navigate and adhere to the rules and vaccine requirements set by the state, the city and individual venues.

They will find that many venues and presenters, including Broadway theaters, the Met Opera, the New York Philharmonic, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall, will admit travelers who show proof of having received one of the vaccines approved by W.H.O. — a list that includes AstraZeneca, Sinopharm and Sinovac, vaccines that have not been authorized for use in the United States.

To help theatergoers prepare for their visit to “Come From Away,” the show recently released a health and safety video outlining what patrons should expect when they show up at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theater. An official with Broadway Inbound said it had touched base with the creators of the video to help ensure it would be educational to both domestic and foreign visitors.

Heywood, meantime, had a plea for New Yorkers already here. “Be nice to tourists,” he said. “This is important.”

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