NYC suburbs push to pull in tourists

August 22, 2012 By Jim Fitzgerald Associated Press
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WEST POINT — The Empire State Building casts a long shadow.

New York City’s suburbs are attempting to mimic the success of one-time outerborough Brooklyn, where tourism is now big-business, seeking a share of tourist dollars drawn to the region by the center city’s magnetism.

“We’re definitely in the position of looking to steal some of the crumbs,” said Kristen Matejka of the Long Island Convention and Visitors Bureau.

They’re even seeking to encourage Brooklynites to becfome suburban tourists. Rockland County’s tourist office is planning to run TV commercials in the Bronx and Brooklyn with the slogan, “A World Away in Your Backyard,” says coordinator C.J. Miller.

The city’s tourism industry brought in $32 billion and supported about 320,000 jobs last year, when more than 50 million people visited Gotham.

In contrast, neighboring Westchester County says tourism was worth $1.7 billion. Long Island counted $4.8 billion.

So how do the island and the Hudson Valley compete with the city that doesn’t sleep?

They don’t.

“New York City is a major draw, like a London, a Las Vegas, an Orlando,” said Natasha Caputo, Westchester’s tourism director. “We’re not competing with Orlando.

“What we try to show is we’re an extension of New York City, enhancing that New York state of mind,” she said.

There’s no Broadway or Museum of Modern Art or Yankee Stadium, but there are highly regarded community theaters, regional museums and minor league baseball. The suburbs can also brag that they have a few things the city doesn’t.

“New York doesn’t have the specific ocean beaches we have,” Matejka said. It also can’t offer Halloween celebrations focused on the Sleepy Hollow legend in Westchester. And it doesn’t have the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, which attracted about 211,000 visitors last year.

But rare is the visitor who comes from Texas or Timbuktu just to see the Hamptons, the Headless Horseman or the Long Gray Line.

“I would be hard-pressed to think anyone is making a special trip to this area from a distance just to see West Point unless they’re an old West Pointer or they have a military background,” said John Schieneman, who operates West Point Tours under an Army contract.

So tourist agencies do their best to take advantage of New York City’s draw. They also narrow their marketing area, in general, to a few hundred miles.

Dave and Deb Maciewicz are in that target zone. They were visiting West Point this month from their home in Barneveld, N.Y., about 200 miles away.

“We love the Hudson Valley,” said Dave Maciewicz, 63, a controller at a nonprofit agency. They’ve been to West Point a couple of times, to the Franklin D. Roosevelt homestead in Hyde Park and the nearby Culinary Institute of America.

But they also love Christmas in New York City, the Bronx Zoo and the racetrack at Saratoga, said Deb Maciewicz, 58, a registered nurse.

Not all the visitors live within driving distance.

Feeding the big numbers at West Point is a huge influx of Chinese tourists on East Coast bus trips. On the day the Maciewiczes visited, 21 buses arrived for tours, most while traveling from New York to Boston. Guides speaking Mandarin and Cantonese were available and the tourists bought T-shirts at the gift shop and posed for photos with cadets.

“It’s the most famous military academy in the world,” explained Sheng Zhen of Hong Kong, who was leading one group of Chinese. “All the boys dream to be a soldier.”

But Schieneman acknowledges those long-distance travelers would not be at West Point if they hadn’t come to see New York.

Rob Schweitzer, spokesman for Historic Hudson Valley, which operates six historic sites and runs the Halloween festival, agrees that the city is good for business.

“The city has such a vibrancy and such energy from a cultural and tourism standpoint. It’s not a problem to offer people a different experience but a complementary experience: If you’re visiting New York or you’re a New Yorker, come out and see what’s half an hour away.”

“Clearly, having New York City 55 miles away is a tremendous benefit, just in general because of the size of the population,” says Schieneman.

Long Island brags about its beaches, ocean fishing and Gold Coast mansions, invoking “The Great Gatsby.” The Hudson Valley brags about Revolutionary War history sites, its Halloween connection and Hudson River mansions. Both say wineries, farms and fine restaurants offer excellent dining.

The Lonely Planet travel guide company recently ranked the Hudson Valley second among interesting and sometimes overlooked destinations. It referred to “plenty of farm-to-table foodie options that draw even spoiled-for-choice Manhattanites away from the city.”

Tourist agencies’ budgets are thin — Westchester’s is funded entirely by a portion of a hotel tax — and some of it goes toward attracting business conferences and movie shoots rather than sightseers. They get some help from New York state, which includes Long Island and the Hudson Valley in some of its “I Love New York” advertising.

There’s little cooperation between city and suburbs, however.

That may be typical. Chicago’s “Choose Chicago” tourist campaign does not include the suburbs, said spokeswoman Melissa McCarville. The state of Illinois, however, includes such suburban attractions as Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio in Oak Park in its promotions, said Sandra Jones of the state Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity. It’s much the same in New York.

“We do not really partner with New York City,” said Susan Hawvermale of the 10-county Hudson Valley Tourism agency. “New York City wants to keep the tourists in New York City.”

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