by Laura Bly, USA TODAY
NEW YORK - Among the more than 3.5 million spectators expected to line the streets of Midtown Manhattan tomorrow for Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade will be 5,000 special guests: survivors from nearby neighborhoods hit the hardest when Superstorm Sandy slammed ashore nearly a month ago.
And the Big Apple's tourism industry, like the giant balloons that symbolize the launch of the city's peak season, is still flying high after a storm that killed dozens and paralyzed much of the region.
"While a very small group of attractions, hotels and restaurants are closed, the vast majority of the city's tourism infrastructure - including transportation - has resumed normal operations," says Christopher Heywood of the city's official tourism bureau, NYC & Company. "We're optimistic we will have a successful holiday season and will close the year with record numbers of visitors," which totalled 50.9 million in 2011 and is expected to reach 52 million this year.
Debbie Adams, waiting in a 20-minute-long checkout line at The Lego Store next to Rockefeller Center's swarming ice rink last Saturday, is one of them.
Here with her two teenage sons on a school-sponsored day trip from Honesdale, Pa., Adams had a few qualms about how Sandy would impact their stay. Yet from lunch at the Hard Rock Cafe to a packed performance of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular (which celebrates its 85th anniversary this year), the family was hard pressed to find any evidence of Sandy's wrath in Midtown, the area most frequented by tourists.
Indeed, although about 30 NYC & Company member hotels were shuttered during the storm and its aftermath and a handful remain closed, prices and occupancy levels for November and December are "even or up a few points" from last year, says John Fox, a New York-based hotel industry consultant at PKF Hospitality Research.
"I would not foresee a lot of bargains this holiday season," adds Fox, noting that last December's average daily room rate for Manhattan hotels was just over $324.
But while it may be ho-ho-ho as usual for such iconic Big Apple attractions as Rockefeller Center (where the Christmas tree lighting ceremony takes place Nov. 28), the Empire State Building Observation Deck, and Gray Line New York (which launches its annual Holiday Lights on Nov. 28), Sandy has been a lingering and unwelcome guest for others.
Scoring tickets to the smash musical "The Book of Mormon" still requires divine intervention (or a willingness to pay a stiff premium), and last Saturday night's performance of the off-Broadway drama "Tribes" was packed to its West Village theater's 200-seat rafters. According to the Broadway League, however, overall theater attendance was nearly 6% lower last week than the same week in 2011, and gross sales were $20.8 million vs. $22.9 million a year ago.
Sales have rebounded at The James Hotel's popular David Burke Kitchen, which, like the rest of its SoHo neighborhood, had been under mandatory evacuation during Sandy. But restaurant staffers are happy to share iPhone evidence of the storm's calling cards, when a foot of water sloshed against a front door barricaded with Halloween decorations and makeshift sandbags fashioned from potted plants.
From a tourist's perspective, Sandy's most palpable impact is in Lower Manhattan's revitalized southern tip, an area that drew a record 9.8 million visitors last year.
Home to the 9/11 Memorial and South Street Seaport, a museum/shopping/restaurant complex on the East River, parts of Lower Manhattan were swamped by more than 10 feet of storm surge. While the memorial plaza and visitor center have reopened (and are extending holiday hours from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Sunday), both the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island are still off-limits pending a National Park Service assessment of "significant damage" to docks and other infrastructure.
Hard-hit South Street Seaport, meanwhile, remains a veritable ghost town of plywood-covered storefronts, dumpsters and workers wearing respirators and hazmat suits.
Last weekend, vendors and shoppers had returned to the New Amsterdam Market under the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. Double-decker sightseeing buses barreled past the chained-off shopping complex Pier 17, next to seven historic ships that rode out the storm unscathed. And across the way on South Street, a hand-lettered "Open" sign and a wheelbarrow full of wine bottles signaled that Pasanella and Son, Vintners was back in business.
Just don't look for any "I Survived Sandy" T-shirts at the Red & Blue souvenir shop on Fulton Street: Owner Lee Chun Ho lost nearly $60,000 worth of merchandise from chest-high flooding in his store's basement, and says "I can't even sell what I have now. After 9/11, business started to pick up after a few weeks." This time, he estimates, "it could be six months."
Lower Manhattan resident Annaline Dinkelmann, owner of Wall Street Walks, saw her own business plummet by nearly 90% after the storm. So, in an effort to "make lemonade out of a bag of lemons," she launched a tour that incorporates the area's Dutch heritage with anecdotes and first-hand observations of Sandy's impact. Profits from the 90-minute, $25 excursions are donated to the South Street Seaport Museum, which hopes to reopen in mid-December.
"I don't see this as 'disaster tourism.' We feel like we're doing a service for our neighbors," says Dinkelmann, leading a handful of customers past such landmarks as the still-closed Fraunces Tavern (the site where Gen. George Washington gave his farewell address to the Continental Army) and discount department store Century 21 (where bargain hunters were once again jamming the aisles last Sunday afternoon).
And across from the 9/11 Memorial site, as tourists lined up at a temporary screening center, Dinkelmann described what may be the ultimate symbol of New York's resilience: the "survivor tree."
The Brazilian pear tree survived the Sept. 11 terror attacks, and was nursed back to health at a park in the Bronx before being transplanted to the memorial. Though Sandy's floodwaters had roared through the 8-acre site, the tree - like the reflecting pools in the footprints of the original Twin Towers - came through just fine.
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