I ♥ Tourism: Why the City Is Better When It’s Full of Annoying Visitors

I ♥ Tourism: Why the City Is Better When It’s Full of Annoying Visitors

8 mins read
Ambassadors to and from the rest of the world. Photo: Konstantin Sergeyev

I grew up in a tourist town. My friends and I laughed at the benighted foreigners, who spoke loud, grating English and sounded out street signs with all the comical awkwardness of first-graders. Also like children, they were distracted by inconsequential details (the flimsy paper tickets on public buses) and oblivious to deeper glories. They walked slowly, dressed appallingly, ate abysmally, spent lavishly, and treated our great, vibrant city like a walk-in diorama. And then I became an adult, traveled to other countries, and metamorphosed into one of those ignorant interlopers, marveling at the obvious and misunderstanding much else. At various points, I have returned to my hometown, as a tourist this time, and had the dislocating experience of seeing the adult me through the eyes of my former self — the eyes of a mocking local teen.

Now I live in a different tourist town. The annual tally of visitors to New York blew past 65 million last year, and half spent the night in the city’s 119,000 hotel rooms. We notice these out-of-towners most when they walk slowly, dress appallingly, eat abysmally, spend lavishly, and treat the place we live as a walk-in diorama. But we should be glad they keep wanting to come.

angry graffiti, installing pedestrian turnstiles, and capping the number of tickets sold. The archaeologist and art historian Salvatore Settis’s 2016 jeremiad If Venice Dies, about the ways in which casual love was menacing the seat of an ancient empire, seemed prescient last month, when a colossal cruise ship drifted out of control and rammed a quay. Mass tourism has taken on a political dimension, too, with scholars and activists examining its impact on inequality, gentrification, and the environment.

New York is not easily overwhelmed, but even so, hating tourists long ago became a marker of snobbish authenticity. I recognize my old adolescent scorn in Fran Lebowitz’s 2014 anti-tourist tirade: “I object to living in a place for people who don’t live here,” she said. Glaser’s logo was so successful that, three decades after he came up with it, he was ready to pull up the drawbridge: “We should do something to discourage tourism,” he said in 2007. (Perhaps Glaser, who just turned 90 and still goes to the office daily, could design a sequel: “I ♥ NY. Stay the Hell Away.”)

A 2018 report by the Center for an Urban Future outlines the effects that a constant infusion of new audiences has on everything Lebowitz claims to cherish. If arts institutions had to survive on locals’ loyalty alone, MoMA wouldn’t be adding yet another new wing, the Metropolitan Museum of Art wouldn’t be open seven days a week, theaters would go dark, and opera would cease to exist. That cute antiques store on your block that you hope won’t get gentrified out of existence? Chances are a quarter of its clientele lives abroad.

neighborhood concerts; the Met mounts quiet shows on rarefied topics; Central Park distributes horticultural wisdom and management advice through its Institute for Urban Parks — and all this activity is fueled by the same people who drive us crazy shuffling in groups along midtown sidewalks without even leaving a passing lane. Many smaller organizations get few out-of-town ticket buyers, but New York’s cultural world is a vast interlinked ecosystem. If the Department of Cultural Affairs can distribute $44 million to nearly 1,000 organizations in all five boroughs — many of them tiny, local, and perpetually struggling — it’s partly because tourists are taking care of the city’s expensive behemoths.

Visitors bring word back home, and the city they describe is the virtual opposite of the snarling, fearful, and battened-down America that the current administration advertises abroad. Television viewers all over the world can stay at home and see that the U.S. government packs asylum seekers into camps and cages children; visitors to New York see a place where half a dozen languages mingle easily on a single block, without threatening social breakdown. The president can say that the largest cities are suddenly so full of “filth” that “police officers are getting sick just by walking the beat,” but 65 million tourists a year go home to tell their friends and neighbors it’s not true.

(Tourism can be an unflattering mirror, too, and a prod for the city to up its game. Homelessness is a badge of shame. Our transit system is creaky. Crossing the street can be lethal. Even if state and city government tried to fix these deficiencies only out of embarrassment rather than a genuine sense of injustice, we would all be better off.)

wrote a book about the experience.) Locals tend to stick to their own cow paths, trudging from home to work and back, on weekends ranging a little farther for a party or a drink. So there’s an invigorating joy in striking out for a neighborhood you think you know but haven’t actually been to in years, or stopping by a house museum whose existence you were only dimly aware of. These expeditions remind us that we are guests here too, temporary residents in a city that doesn’t much care where we came from or how long we stay. We are here because it’s where we were born, or because we never got around to leaving, or because it’s the sort of place where we can live however we like, in the company of others who are doing the same. But that doesn’t give us a monopoly on what New York means. The character of a great city is defined as much by the people who pass through as by its fixtures. The urban spectacle needs a fresh audience every night.

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