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Monday, April 19, 2021

Before the attack, New York welcomed more Chinese tourists — and they’re probably not coming back

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Outside the new Four Seasons Hotel in Manhattan, dozens of elegantly dressed black-clad men in suits waited in a serpentine line to get in. On Thursday, two months after terrorists struck during the first day of a Chinese new year holiday in Times Square, the hotel was booked as tightly as a caged lion. As one luxury concierge told The New York Times, “no-show rates are through the roof.”

This week, I visited the area for what turned out to be the first event of the four-day China Week celebration in New York City: We See TV, an annual series that brings Chinese television programs to American audiences. At least 2,000 people — many of them professional photographers from the show business — crowded into a plaza near Herald Square to view a 24-foot-high traveling crane that will be used to project some of the most popular programs on Chinese TV. The result is a downtown outdoor broadcasting studio, identical to those that often produce television sets in China.

This is New York — and part of this is Chinese tourism, much of it spent on an American way of life. Ten Chinese millionaires, some with offices in American skyscrapers, were photographed taking selfies, and trade publications chronicled the power players who arrived in expensive vintage cars.

But in the June explosion of terror that stunned this city, more than any other factor, now is when business starts to suffer.

Before the attack, there were reportedly 400,000 Chinese tourists visiting New York City every year. They spend $10 billion every year, but they are likely to reduce travel in future months. More to the point, the Chinese government — which needs them to keep economic growth going — has banned its citizens from traveling abroad, except for holidays. “If no tourists come, I have no business,” one New York business leader told me. “That could mean two to three years of worry for people like me.”

Before I met him in Midtown, he texted to point out that he paid off his bank debt in China two years ago, and now is hoping that the help he receives in America will pay for his wife’s cancer treatment. He wondered if he would ever be able to pay off his loan in America.

“If tourists stay away from my country,” he added, “I feel worthless.”

So far, the financial damage to tourism seems minimal. The business community is paying it no attention. “We are lucky, because so far it has not affected business negatively,” one midtown real estate executive said. Many of the business leaders I spoke with — foreign and Chinese — were aware of the new security measures at airports around the world, the sign posted at the Four Seasons that foreigners must register in New York before they can visit and of the added surveillance on bridges and in subways and on the streets.

But for now, “it’s not on my mind,” the Chinese real estate executive said. “I’m more concerned about my cash flow.”

The travel industry is seeing another side of the security measures, already in place, that allow police to forbid visitors from carrying items on planes. Now, officers seem to have made up their minds, said someone whose family owns a small luggage-making company in Long Island City. “They have an ‘it’ll put off jihad,’ mentality,” said the businessman, who asked not to be identified. “They are so obsessed with security that they have made a certain number of inconveniences insurmountable.”

“They have these trump cards,” the man added. “They need to call me in from China one day and say, ‘there will be two things you’ll no longer be able to bring in.’”

The visitor, American, said he supports the precautions. He feels much safer with new security measures since the Sept. 11 attacks, and he is not sure China needs to restrict his movement.

But people who enjoy New York City need to understand the effect those enhanced security measures will have on the middle class of China, and the tourist industry that supports it.

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