Coronavirus in N.Y.: Without Chinese Tourists, Business Sags
The demand for hotel rooms and restaurants in New York and other tourist destinations around the world is falling rapidly.
A hotel manager near Newark Liberty International Airport, who relies on Chinese tourists, estimated the loss from the coronavirus outbreak at “well over $100,000 and climb.”
A business that arranges Chinese-language bus tours of Manhattan’s sights is struggling with as many as 300 cancellations from Chinese tourists who this week are unable to come to New York.
The owner of a Queens travel agency who had booked trips for 200 Chinese tourists this week and next has already thought about when two of his five workers might need to be laid off.
With health officials struggling to cope with an epidemic spreading around the world, New York area tour operators and travel agents are bracing for the economic pain that will come with vacant hotel rooms and empty seats on tour buses.
“It will be a serious financial burden,” said Elizabeth Chin, a travel agent in Fort Lee, N.J., and the chairwoman of the Pacific Asia Travel Association branch in New York, a trade group. “Flights are suspended. The tour operators canceled. ‘
Across the globe, many cities are starting to experience the fallout from the precipitous drop in visitors from China now that the Chinese government has imposed a ban on organized tours and many airlines have suspended flights to and from that country. The coronavirus is believed to have originated in Wuhan, China, late last year.
In London, restaurant operators in the city’s Chinatown have noticed a steep drop in business since the country’s first two cases of the coronavirus were confirmed last week in northeast England.
“Compared to the last few months, we lost around 50 percent of our customers,” said Martin Ma, the general manager of Jinli, a restaurant with two locations in London’s Chinatown. “The reason is the virus.”
Health officials in New York had identified three possible cases of the virus. On Tuesday, test results for one of the three patients, all of whom had recently been to China, came back negative. Results for the two other patients were pending. The officials said the city was prepared for the possible spread of the virus, but they cautioned people not to panic.
Nonetheless, beyond plunging into Chinese tourists, restaurant owners and shops in New York’s three big Chinatowns — Lower Manhattan; Flushing, Queens; and Sunset Park, Brooklyn — say the coronavirus and the concerns it has caused are hurting business.
At restaurants in Manhattan’s Chinatown, workers and owners said business had dropped 50 to 70 percent in the last 10 days.
In New York City, Chinese tourists represent the second-largest group of foreign travelers. (Visitors from Britain are No. 1.)
Nationwide, China was the third-largest source of overseas visitors to the United States in 2018, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Among cities, New York was the top destination, followed by Los Angeles.
Bruce Zhu, the manager of China Tour Travel Services in Flushing, Queens, had booked hotel rooms and made sightseeing-tour arrangements for 200 people who were scheduled to arrive from China in the next two weeks. He said that was a typical number for early to mid-February.
“It’s a really big issue,” he said. “We have to cancel the reservations, the hotels cancel. We’re losing a lot of money on the reservations.” He said he might have to lay off two of his five employees, the two working in the office full time. (The other 3 employees work as needed from home, he said.)
He said he would decide whether to cut back in about a month. “If there’s good news, they’ll continue,” he said. “If the news is no good, not.”
Don Chan, the manager at a company that schedules Chinese-language bus tours, said that after the coronavirus outbreak became known but before travel restrictions took effect, the number of customers on each bus had been about half what it was a year ago — 10 to 20 customers a day, compared with 30 to 40 a day last year.
Now, he said, he has 15 tour guides who know that fewer passengers will mean less wrangling on and off the buses, and also less in tips.
“It’s all stopped — zero,” said another travel agent in Flushing, Lijun Yang, who typically arranges one tour bus a day to Manhattan. “No Times Square, no Empire State Building, no Metropolitan Museum, no Wall Street, no United Nations.”
Outside the office of Universal Vision in Flushing, which books sightseeing trips to Manhattan as well as to places like Niagara Falls, brochures promised “tours every day.” But employees said there was no one to fill the seats on the company’s minivans and buses.
One employee said on Monday that the company had handled cancellations for 200 to 300 customers for this week and at least as many cancellations for the weeks ahead.
Hotels popular with Chinese tour operators and travel agents are also feeling the pinch. The manager of the Best Western Queens Court in Flushing said cancellations and no-shows had begun before travel restrictions took effect, reducing business 25 percent in the last two weeks of January.
Another hotel that counts on business from China, the Wyndham Garden Newark Airport, is likely to lose $250,000 to $300,000 worth of business in the next 90 days, said the general manager, Dwayne Cronce. He said he was already facing a loss of well over $100,000 from cancellations and no-shows.
“Like everything else, it will work itself out,” he said. “But the initial impact? Very difficult.”
Tourism Economics, which conducts travel-industry research, is predicting a 28 percent drop in visitors to the United States from China in 2020 and $5.8 billion less in spending. The firm based its forecast on the timeline of the SARS outbreak in 2003 — which lasted about four months — and the travel industry’s rebound. It took another three years for the number of travelers from China to return to pre-SARS numbers.
Last week, before the Trump administration advised Americans not to travel to China, STR, a travel research company, said 2020 would be a “non-growth year” for hotels in the United States in revenue per available room, the hotel industry’s benchmark indicator. That prediction came after nine years of relatively strong growth.
“There’s never a good time for something like coronavirus,” said Carter Wilson, STR’s senior vice president of consulting and analytics, “but the U.S. hotel industry is in more of a vulnerable position now than it was three or four years ago.”
Sean F. Hennessey, an assistant professor at New York University who follows the travel industry, said the economic impact was likely to be greater than during the SARS outbreak because China accounted for less than 2 percent of the city’s foreign visitors then.
In 2018, according to figures from NYC & Company, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, just under 8 percent of the foreign travelers who visited New York came from China.
“New York will feel it,” Mr. Hennessey said, referring to the impact of the coronavirus, “because not only have Chinese travelers become an increasingly large portion of the visitor base, but they are one of the most profitable portions of the visitor base, not just for hotels but for the city as a whole. They stay longer and they tend to spend more money.”
The number of Chinese visiting New York has surged since 2008, when officials from the United States and China cleared the way for vacationers to visit.
Still, the 1.08 million Chinese who traveled to New York in 2018 represented only 1.6 percent of the city’s 65 million tourists that year, the most recent for which NYC & Company has figures. The vast majority of travelers to New York, some 51.5 million, were Americans from beyond the New York region.
For now, some restaurants and stores in Chinatown in Manhattan are not seeing the usual crowds.
“For me going shopping, to see the community on the streets of Chinatown, I could tell,” said Joanna C. Lee, who with her husband, Ken Smith, publishes the Pocket Chinese Almanac. “What I would call the number of tourists, the non-Chinese people running around, they’re much less.”
Steve Ip, the manager of Yin Ji Chang Fen, a restaurant on Bayard Street in Manhattan, said business was off 50 percent. He said that after the Lunar New Year, he expected crowds of students who had been visiting their families in the New York area. But this year, many apparently did not come home.
Andy Wang, a manager at the Taiwan Pork Chop House on Doyers Street in Manhattan, said the crowds had become sparse since the outbreak of the coronavirus. Business is down at lunchtime, when Wall Street types usually fill the tables, and also because tourism has fallen off. He said he was stocking his kitchen with fewer ingredients from neighborhood markets.