A handful of people are standing on West 42nd Street, ready to board a double decker bus for a tour of Manhattan. But Billy Igobo, 43, a street vendor with The Big Bus New York, is unhappy to learn that someone bought a ticket online. He has been struggling to sell tour tickets since the bus company resumed operations in August after the coronavirus pandemic forced it to shut down.
“Please don’t buy tickets online! Buy them from vendors so we can also make some money,” he pleads. Sidewalk vendors like Igobo earn a commission on each ticket sold.
Most ticket agents are happy to be able to work again. But without customers, they’re not earning much.
“Everyone we approach on the streets is scared of taking the flyers we give out to market our services, and most people are scared to hop on the buses because they think they will get coronavirus,” he says.
Local bus operators say they’re struggling as the pandemic continues to restrict global movement. Most double decker buses are rolling along city streets with empty seats, due not only to scarce customers but to precautions the city has imposed to control the spread of COVID-19.
Phil Boggon, chief commercial officer for Big Bus Tours, said in a press release that the company has instituted several safety measures, conducting deep bus cleans daily, placing hand sanitizer on all buses and requiring temperature checks. Riders must reserve seats in advance.
“We are pleased to operate and to be in position to offer services to tourists, in line with the guidelines set by the Centers for Diseases Control,” Boggon said. “As a new policy, we require everyone to wear a mask to ensure the safety of others.”
Top View Sightseeing, another bus tour operator, has slashed its package prices in a bid to bring more tourists onboard. The company’s website shows a 36% price reduction from $55 to $35 for its Hop-On Hop-Off Pass Same Day package; the price for the Single Ride Pass has dropped 35%, from $45 to $29. Kids ride free.
But the discounts have yet to entice more visitors to board the buses.
“These unprecedented times have affected pretty much all sectors of the economy,” says Shea Belle, 44, a ticket controller at Top View Sightseeing. “Tourism in New York City will never be the same again.”
“People need to embrace the fact that NYC has reopened and start living life,” says Thomas Mora, 34, trying to sell City Sights NY tickets near the Hudson Piers, without many takers.
New York is one of 10 cities where the Big Bus Tours have resumed operation, after the city recorded a decline in daily COVID-19 infections. Ordinarily, it operates in 23 U.S. cities.
New York State coronavirus control guidelines require the buses to enforce social distancing, so half of the seats remain vacant, often tied off with yellow rope. But there aren’t enough tourists to fill the remaining seats.
Data from Baruch College’s Zicklin School of Business indicates that New York City has been the nation’s most popular destination for visitors. In 2018, the city welcomed 65.1 million tourists, an all-time high. International visitors comprised 13.6 million of that total, but they have outsized economic importance because they stay longer and spend more money than domestic visitors.
The data further reveals that New York City attracts almost one-third of all foreign visitors to the United States. In 2017, visitors to New York City spent more than $44.2 billion, generating a more than $70 billion economic impact.
Midtown tourism stores also remain empty. “Before the lockdown we would be having very many customers buying souvenirs,’’ says Venneranda Kiradi, a salesperson at the I Love NYC store on West 42nd Street. “On several occasions we would tell them to wait, but today we are yearning to see them fill up our shop.”
Tourism aided the city’s recovery from the September 11 terrorist attacks and posted a decade of steady spending growth that topped out at $46 billion last year, according to NYC & Company, the bureau promoting local tourism.