Gun battle occurs near legendary tourist attraction in New York
Experts don't expect the incident to hurt tourism
City leaders maintain New York is the safest big city in America
Tourism has evolved, beginning with the rebirth of Times Square
Within hours of Friday’s wild gun battle near the Empire State Building, New York City’s top leaders sought to reassure legions of tourists and the city’s 8.3 million residents.
“New York City, as you know, is the safest big city in the country, and we are on pace to have a record low number of murders this year,” Mayor Michael Bloomberg said near the scene.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, after providing details of the incident, told reporters the city expects to break the 2011 record of 50 million visitors.
The messaging came at the height of the city’s tourism season, when visitors throng to landmarks and, increasingly, to newer draws, such as Brooklyn.
The Empire State Building is one of the most famous skyscrapers in the world and one of New York City’s best-known tourist attractions.
Friday’s incident, while disconcerting, won’t scare people away, hospitality experts said.
“People will reflect on this, but I do not think it will change any plans,” said NYU professor Lalia Rach. “People are resilient. They understand the unfortunate nature of life and situations that occur we have no control over.”
Politicians and tourism officials around the country spend a lot of time dealing with questions about crime, or perception of crime.
While Bloomberg said the city is not immune from what he called the “national problem of gun violence,” his office has answered incidents such as Friday’s with statistics.
According to the FBI, the Big Apple in 2010 had the lowest murder rate among the five largest U.S. cities, besting Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Philadelphia.
“Any visitor planning a trip to New York should feel very safe and confident that this was an isolated incident,” said Cristyne Nicholas, former president and CEO of NYC & Company, the city’s marketing organization. “They should be comforted that this individual was stopped in his tracks by police.”
Police officers, observers say, seem to be everywhere, particularly in top tourist destinations.
Earlier this month, police responded to another high-profile incident in a Manhattan area popular with visitors and shoppers. Officers shot and killed a knife-wielding man near Times Square when he advanced and refused to drop his weapon, police said.
New York’s police force grew from 27,000 to 38,000 during the administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who served from 1994 through 2011.
The mayor, according to Nicholas, took on crime in a city still wounded by the 1991 Crown Heights riot and the slaying of a Utah tourist on a Manhattan subway car in 1990.
“I think he will be forever remembered as the crime-fighting mayor,” said Nicholas, who served as his chief spokeswoman.
Even after crime fell dramatically, Giuliani continued to have quarterly press conferences on crime.
“There was a concerted effort to link the crime reductions to tourism generation,” according to Nicholas, CEO of a communications company.
New York’s tourism success story traditionally focuses on the rebirth of Times Square, which morphed from seedy to family-friendly.
“It was the place to avoid,” said Nicholas. “As a kid, when it was really bad in 1975, I remember having to cut through to Times Square to get to Grand Central Station. I held my father’s hand. He held it a little tighter.”
“It was a land of degenerates,” she said. “Now it is the center of the city.”
The Times Square transformation began with the opening of the Marriott Marquis in the mid-1980s, said NYU’s Rach, a professor at the Preston Robert Tisch Center for Hospitality, Tourism, and Sports Management.
“Bill Marriott took the chance because no one else would,” Rach told CNN. “That was at a time when Times Square was not a tourist mecca as it is today.”
Prominent families were part of a “committed citizenry” that worked with the private sector and government to turn things around, according to Rach.
Experts also credit Disney for bringing the New Amsterdam Theatre back to glory in the 1990s and ushering the current era of family-focused entertainment with a stage version of “The Lion King.”
Something else happened in the past two decades – education of New Yorkers about the value of tourism.
“Politicians and governments didn’t get tourism,” said Rach. “They thought by raising taxes on tourists you were not hurting the community.”
Take the city’s hotel occupancy tax.
“Conventions and meeting planners were starting to boycott New York City,” according to Nicholas. “They said it was highway robbery and they wouldn’t stand for it.” Giuliani and the state cut the occupancy tax significantly.
While the September 11, 2001, attacks left the city’s tourism efforts in recovery mode for a good year, city and corporate leaders made sure that Broadway shows were playing just two nights later.
“They were half full, but the point Giuliani was making is they have attacked us physically and killed 3,000 New Yorkers, (but) we are not going to let them take away our culture as well,” said Nicholas.
Nearly 11 years later, culture and resolve are alive and well in New York City.
Pedestrian zones, including one in Times Square, have increased the safety and comfort of tourists and residents alike.
And while legacy sites such as the Metropolitan Museum, the Statue of Liberty and Central Park remain hugely popular, Harlem, Lower Manhattan and the city’s other boroughs, notably Brooklyn, are drawing more visitors.
“The hippest hotels in New York City are in Brooklyn,” said Rach.
She cites the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Brooklyn Nets, who will play their inaugural season in the NBA this year, as draws. Restaurants and other businesses have made Atlantic Avenue another magnet for visitors.
For all its tourist attractions, the city cannot afford to become complacent, experts said.
“There is increased competition for everything,” said Rach. “New York cannot live on its laurels. It is not the only incredible city.”
She cited Las Vegas, Chicago and Orlando, Florida, as competitors for meetings and other events.
Still, Rach said, New York retains something special.
“It maintains the best of what it has been. You can still get the best corned-beef sandwich in New York,” Rach said. “There is always hot new retail, a new hot show on Broadway. We are the place that blends the best of the past with the most amazing of the present.”
Although most residents feel safe, according to observers, New Yorkers remain on guard following 9/11.
“New Yorkers have a standard of crime prevention that they expect at this point,” said Nicholas. “If we see it is starting to turn back, from the heightened standards, I think New Yorkers will become very vocal.”
CNN’s Tim Obert contributed to this report.