As tourism brightens, Times Square hopes to regain luster

NEW YORK (AP) — David Cohen has been yearning for a return to the days when business boomed at his family’s souvenir shop in Times Square.

While tourists have begun returning, foot traffic into Grand Slam souvenirs is still not what it was before the coronavirus pandemic, when hordes of global visitors crowded under the canopy of electric billboards just outside his door.

But the return of foreign tourists to a place popularly called the crossroads of the world may help hasten recovery for businesses like his — many of them mom-and-pop shops — that collectively employ thousands of people and serve as one of New York City’s most important economic engines.

“We welcome them back with open arms,” Cohen said after the U.S. began allowing vaccinated international travelers into the country this month. “We’ve got a long way to go.”

Times Square has long stood as an emblem of New York’s hustle and bustle. But as Broadway theaters shut their doors and the city became an early epicenter of the global pandemic, 9 in 10 businesses in the area closed, according to a district civic group, The Times Square Alliance.

“We really were were a symbol to the world of the pandemic and the pause,” said Tom Harris, the alliance’s president.

Three-fourths of area businesses have since reopened, bit by bit, as Broadway shows began reopening to vaccinated-only audiences.

Among those hopefully restarting are businesses that don’t cater directly to tourists, but are part of the city’s entertainment ecosystem.

Sam Vasili’s Shoe Repair reopened last month across 51st Street from the Gershwin Theater, where it had operated for three decades before a long pandemic closure.

Owner Sam Smolyar was all grins on a recent afternoon as he shared the news that a Broadway production set to reopen nearby had requisitioned his help. For years, he helped outfit the Rockettes with custom-fitted boots. “We rely on the theater, and on the businesses around here,” he said.

He hopes more people buying tickets on Broadway will mean busier times.

“It starts to get better,” said Vasili, who employs three people at the shop.

Just before the COVID-19 outbreak, New York City was posting record numbers of tourists — 66.6 million in 2019, including 13.5 million from outside the U.S. Then the pandemic prompted severe restrictions on foreign travel.

A marketing blitz has been underway for months to remind Americans that New York City is again open for business and ready for the visiting masses. Now the city is expanding its outreach to those outside the U.S., who are especially coveted because they spend more time and more money during their visits.