Foreign tourists back in New York, long business recovery seen ahead

By Tyler Clifford

NEW YORK (Reuters) – New York has launched its largest tourism advertising campaign in history. John F. Kennedy International Airport bustles again with foreign passengers. The holiday season promises peak travel cheer, with more visitors on streets and in stores.

But souvenir shops, horse carriage drivers and small businesses that rely on vacationers said it could take weeks, or longer, to revive their fortunes, especially to robust pre-pandemic levels.

“I’m just pessimistic, that they’re not going to return in the way people think they will,” said Daniel Zambrzycki, the owner of Gifts on the Square in Times Square, one of the world’s most-visited tourist sites. “It’s a snail-pace progression.”

International tourists bring something different to New York than domestic travelers, city tourism officials said. They tend to spend more, stay longer, and bring a mix of cultures, accents and attitudes that reinforce its cosmopolitan feel.

How and when New York tourism emerges from the pandemic after U.S. curbs on foreign travel were eased on Nov. 8 is something that business owners, city officials and other top tourist destinations are closely watching.

Vijay Dandapani, chief executive of the Hotel Association of New York City, sees the country’s most populous city as a litmus test for tourism in the rest of the country.

“New York is the biggest destination,” he said. “Many stop here and go on to other places.”

Current forecasts are not encouraging. This year, NYC & Co, the city’s tourism agency, expects total visitor spending of $24 billion, down from about $47 billion in 2019.

Just 2.8 million foreign visitors are expected this year, a far cry from the record 13.5 million in 2019, when they accounted for 20% of all visitors and half of the spending.

International visitors could triple to 8.5 million next year, NYC & Co spokesman Chris Heywood said. But a rebound to 2019 levels may not come until 2025, two years after domestic travel is expected to recover.

By comparison, it took five years for international tourism in the city to fully recover following the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, according to the agency.

‘IT TAKES TIME’

Some souvenir stores in the Times Square area closed for good after pandemic restrictions shut down discretionary travel from much of the world, making parts of New York feel like a ghost town. While pedestrian traffic has picked up since the summer, shops that remain are operating through uncertainty.

Zambrzycki, for one, worries that spikes in crime and homelessness since the pandemic began in March 2020 will deter some foreign visitors.

He said revenues at his store remained down 65% from 2019. He has no immediate plans to restore store hours or enlarge his four-person staff – half the number in 2019.

Jalal Alif, who manages a shop called I Love NY by Phantom of Broadway, also sees no quick surge in customer traffic.

“It takes time,” Alif said, standing in the middle of the nearly empty store. “It’s not going to be the same like before.”

To jumpstart a rebound, NYC & Co has launched a $30 million tourism campaign, its largest, with $6 million dedicated to key international markets, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico, Brazil and South Korea, Heywood said.

“Our goal really is to create urgency to book now and ensure that New York is at the top of the priority list for international travel.”

About 20 blocks north of Times Square, Kieran Emanus has offered rides through Central Park in his horse-drawn carriage for decades. Like a visit to the Statue of Liberty, the experience is on the bucket list of many out-of-town visitors.

Emanus enjoyed a modest uptick in bookings in the first week after restrictions were lifted. A good day before the pandemic would have had six carriage bookings on weekdays and 12 on weekends, he said. Now, “if you get eight on a weekend day, you are very happy.”

But there are hopeful signs.

Six groups from Britain were among Emanus’ recent customers, he said. “I hadn’t seen an English person since the pandemic.”

(Reporting by Tyler Clifford in New York; Editing by Richard Chang)

Afghan commander Ismail Khan captured as Taliban seize Herat

KABUL (Reuters) – Taliban insurgents have seized most of Herat, Afghanistan’s third largest city, and also captured Ismail Khan, the veteran local commander leading militia resistance there, local officials said on Friday.

The fall of Herat, the latest in a series of major provincial cities to be taken by the Taliban in the past few days, has dealt a shocking blow to the government of President Ashraf Ghani only weeks after the withdrawal of U.S. forces.

One official said Afghan government forces had agreed to withdraw from Herat airport, 15 km (nine miles) from the city, and the Army Corps commander’s headquarters, the last centers under their control. However other sources said Afghan forces were still at the airport as of 1 p.m. local time (0830 GMT).

“The Taliban agreed that they will not pose any threat or harm to the government officials who surrendered,” said provincial council member Ghulam Habib Hashimi.

As fighting subsided, the streets fell silent in Herat, a major economic hub of about 600,000 people close to the border with Iran and over centuries one of the historic centers of Persian culture.

“Families have either left or are hiding in their houses,” said Hashimi, who described Herat as a “ghost town”.

Herat has seen increasingly heavy fighting with popular militia groups serving alongside regular army units as Taliban pressure on the city mounted following the U.S. pullout.

Khan, the most prominent militia commander and believed to be in his 70s, together with the provincial governor and security officials, were handed over to the Taliban under an agreement, Hashimi told Reuters. He had no details of the deal.

Khan’s capture, confirmed by Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, provided one of the most potent symbols of the crumbling of resistance in the city.

Photos and videos showing the eminent commander apparently in the hands of the insurgents were widely shared on social media although they could not immediately be verified.

Ismail Khan is widely known as the Lion of Herat. His involvement in Afghanistan’s wars goes back to the anti-government uprising that helped trigger the 1979 Soviet intervention, and his return to the front lines a month ago was a clear sign of the growing threat to Herat.

(Reporting by Kabul staff, writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan, editing by Mark Heinrich)

Looming Hurricane Florence heaps despair on rural U.S. towns ravaged by 2016 storm

Eve Waddell, daughter Ella, 6, and her husband, acting police chief of Chadbourn, North Carolina, Anthony Spivey, take stock out in the backyard of their home ahead of Hurricane Florence in Fair Bluff, North Carolina, U.S., September 12, 2018. REUTERS/Patrick Rucker

By Patrick Rucker

FAIR BLUFF, N.C. (Reuters) – When Hurricane Matthew submerged the small town of Fair Bluff, North Carolina, two years ago, Eve Waddell thought she had witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime disaster.

“You’ll never see that again,” she reassured her daughter Ella, then 4, after floodwaters surged over the banks of the Lumber River, inundating Fair Bluff with several feet of water and damaging her house.

As Hurricane Florence barreled toward the state on Wednesday, Waddell packed up her family to seek shelter with relatives and said she was ready to leave town for good – just as many businesses and hundreds of residents did after Matthew in 2016.

“This old town’s had it,” said her husband, Anthony Spivey, the police chief in a nearby municipality.

Meteorologists warn the menacing storm could stall out over the Carolinas, dumping enormous amounts of rainfall and creating massive flooding.

That was the case with Matthew, a less powerful hurricane that did most of its damage inland, producing catastrophic levels of flooding throughout low-lying eastern North Carolina and causing billions of dollars in damages.

Rural, low-income communities like Fair Bluff – already beset by economic difficulties – were hardest hit and remain most at risk this week.

Approximately 125 miles (200 km) south of Raleigh, Fair Bluff is 38 percent white and 60 percent African-American, with a median household income of $17,000, according to state figures.

Its downtown district has been a virtual ghost town since Matthew, with a dozen empty storefronts still bearing the marks of the storm’s fury.

A grimy scar cuts across retail windows, marking the height of the flooding. In a furniture shop, neatly arranged bedroom sets moldered; an abandoned hardware store was still stocked with ovens, washing machines and refrigerators.

Before the storm, Fair Bluff had nearly 1,000 residents, said Al Leonard, the town’s part-time administrator. He estimated more than a quarter left and have not returned since Matthew.

“We base our calendar on B.C. or A.D.,” Leonard said. “In Fair Bluff, they base their calendar on Before Matthew and After Matthew. Matthew changed everything.”

RURAL DEVASTATION

Other rural communities around the state’s eastern half tell a similar story.

Lumberton, a larger nearby town of approximately 21,000 people along the Lumber River, saw nearly 900 homes severely damaged by Matthew, including hundreds of low-income renters who lost their residences, according to a state report.

In Princeville, known as the oldest community settled by freed slaves in the United States, hundreds of homes were severely damaged by flooding from the Tar River.

The agricultural community of Goldsboro, along the Neuse River, saw hundreds of homes and substantial livestock destroyed.

Many low-income communities were already buffeted by a decline in manufacturing and agriculture, as well as the aftermath of the 2007-09 recession, according to Barry Ryan, vice president of the nonprofit NC Rural Center, which helps support rural counties.

“These communities are aging rapidly,” he said. “There’s been a general market downturn – somewhat driven by population loss, somewhat driven by economic restructuring.”

Jeff Axelberg, a member of Fair Bluff’s Chamber of Commerce who markets sweet potatoes, said the farmers he works with are worried because Florence is arriving so early in the season, with only about 10 percent of the crop in.

“They’re working day and night to get what they can out of the ground,” he said.

Long-term solutions are elusive. Some in town have suggested recruiting a canoe operator or other tourist draw to Fair Bluff, turning the river from a liability into an opportunity, Axelberg said.

Residents and business owners have often found it challenging to navigate state and federal bureaucracies in search of recovery and repair funds.

In many communities, homeowners are only now starting to receive money through the state’s hazard mitigation grant program to sell, elevate or rebuild their homes.

The smallest towns are also hamstrung by a lack of administrative capacity. Leonard, Fair Bluff’s administrator, also serves as the town’s water system supervisor, town planner and budget director.

He spends one day per week in Fair Bluff because he also holds the position of town administrator for four other nearby municipalities.

On Wednesday, he watched as laborers laid brick for a police office extension off the back of Fair Bluff’s town hall, which officials moved to just outside the flood zone after Matthew.

“Last time, this was high ground,” Leonard said. “We’ll just have to wait and see.”

(Reporting by Patrick Rucker in Fair Bluff, North Carolina; Additional reporting and writing by Joseph Ax in New York; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Lisa Shumaker)

Once oil wealthy, Venezuela’s largest state struggles to keep the lights on

Elizabeth Altuve climbs the stairs at the occupied building where she lives in Maracaibo, Venezuela July 26, 2018. Picture taken July 26, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bell

By Mayela Armas

MARACAIBO, Venezuela (Reuters) – Across Maracaibo, the capital of Venezuela’s largest state, residents unplug refrigerators to guard against power surges. Many only buy the food they will consume the same day. Others regularly sleep outside.

Judith Palmar holds her mother Sibilina Caro hand after feeding her at their home in Maracaibo, Venezuela July 25, 2018. Picture taken July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Judith Palmar holds her mother Sibilina Caro hand after feeding her at their home in Maracaibo, Venezuela July 25, 2018. Picture taken July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

The rolling power blackouts in the state of Zulia pile more misery on Venezuelans living under the fifth year of an economic crisis that has sparked malnutrition, hyperinflation and mass emigration. OPEC member Venezuela’s once-thriving socialist economy has collapsed since the 2014 fall of oil prices.

“I never thought I would have to go through this,” said bakery worker Cindy Morales, 36, her eyes welling with tears. “I don’t have food, I don’t have power, I don’t have money.”

Zulia, the historic heart of Venezuela’s energy industry that was for decades known for opulent oil wealth, has been plunged into darkness for several hours a day since March, sometimes leaving its 3.7 million residents with no electricity for up to 24 hours.

In the past, Zulians considered themselves living in a “Venezuelan Texas”, rich from oil and with an identity proudly distinct from the rest of the country. Oil workers could often be seen driving new cars and flew by private jet to the Dutch Caribbean territory of Curacao to gamble their earnings in casinos.

Once famous for its all-night parties, now Maracaibo is often a sea of darkness at night due to blackouts.

The six state-owned power stations throughout Zulia have plenty of oil to generate electricity but a lack of maintenance and spare parts causes frequent breakdowns, leaving the plants running at 20 percent capacity, said Angel Navas, the president of the national Federation of Electrical Workers.

Energy Minister Luis Motta said this month that power cuts of up to eight hours a day would be the norm in Zulia while authorities developed a “stabilization” plan. He did not provide additional details and the Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

The Zulia state government did not respond to a request to comment.

People block a street in protest during a blackout in Maracaibo, Venezuela July 26, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

People block a street in protest during a blackout in Maracaibo, Venezuela July 26, 2018. REUTERS/Marco Bello

Although Caracas has fared far better than Maracaibo, a major outage hit the capital city on Tuesday morning for around two hours due to a fault at a substation. The energy minister said “heavy rains” had been reported near the substation.

Venezuelans were forced to walk or cram into buses as much of the subway was shut. Long lines formed in front of banks and stores in the hopes power would flick back on. The fault also affected some phone lines and the main Maiquetia airport just outside the capital.

“This is terrible. I feel helpless because I want to go to work but I am in this queue instead,” said domestic worker Nassari Parra, 50, as she waited in a line of 20 people in front of a closed bank.

MARACAIBO “GHOST TOWN”

Retiree Judith Palmar, 56, took advantage of having power to cook one afternoon last week in Maracaibo.

When the lights do go out, Palmar wheels her paralyzed mother outside because the house becomes intolerably hot. One power cut damaged an air conditioning unit, which Palmar cannot afford to replace on her pension of about $1.50 a month due to inflation, estimated by the opposition-run Congress in June at 46,000 percent a year.

Outages are taking a toll on businesses in Zulia.

Zulia used to produce 70 percent of Venezuela’s milk and meat but without power to milk cows and keep meat from spoiling, the state’s production has fallen nearly in half, according to Venezuela’s National Federation of Ranchers.

Zulia’s proportion of Venezuela’s total oil production has also slipped over the past 10 years from 38 percent to 25 percent, figures from state oil company PDVSA show.

Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second largest city, seems like a “ghost town,” said Fergus Walshe, head of a local business organization. He said businesses had shortened their operating hours due to the lack of power.

“Before, business activity here was booming,” he said.

Small businesses are also affected. In an industrial park in Maracaibo’s outskirts, 80 percent of the 1,000 companies based there are affected by the power cuts, according to another business association in Zulia.

Sales at Americo Fernandez’ spare parts store are down 50 percent because card readers, which are crucial because even the cheapest goods require unwieldy piles of banknotes, cannot be used during power cuts.

“I have had to improvise to stay afloat. I connect the car battery to the store so that the card readers can work,” Fernandez said during a power outage at his home, surrounded by candles.

(Reporting by Mayela Armas in Maracaibo, additional reporting by Andreina Aponte and Shaylim Castro in Caracas; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Alistair Bell)

Six years after Fukushima nuclear disaster, residents trickle back to deserted towns

Ukedo Elementary School Principal, Chieko Oyama, visits the school damaged by the March 11, 2011 tsunami, near Tokyo Electric Power Co's (TEPCO) tsunami-crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in Namie town, Fukushima prefecture, Japan, March 1, 2017. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

By Kiyoshi Takenaka and Teppei Kasai

NAMIE, Fukushima (Reuters) – A truck occasionally whizzes past the darkened shops with cracked walls and fallen signs that line the main street of Japan’s mostly deserted seaside town of Namie.

Workers repair a damaged home nearby, and about 60 employees busily prepare for the return of former residents in the largely untouched town hall. Not far away, two wild boars stick their snouts in someone’s yard, snuffling for food.

Signs of life are returning nearly six years after panicked residents fled radiation spewed by the nearby Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, when it was struck by an earthquake and tsunami.

Still, only several hundred of the original 21,500 residents plan to return in the first wave, estimates Hidezo Sato, a former seed merchant who helped draw up a blueprint to rebuild the town.

“As a person who used to sell seeds for a living, I believe now is a time to sow seeds” for rebuilding, said Sato, 71. “Harvesting is far away. But I hope I can manage to help bring about fruition.”

Since November, people who registered have been allowed to spend nights in the town, but residents will not need permission to stay round the clock after Japan lifts evacuation orders for parts of Namie and three other towns at the end of March.

Just 4 km (2.5 miles) away from the wrecked plant, Namie is the closest area cleared for the return of residents since the disaster of March 11, 2011.

But the town will never be the same, as radiation contamination has left a big area off limits. And it may never be inhabitable.

More than half – 53 percent – of former residents have decided not to return, a government poll showed last September. They cited concerns over radiation and the safety of the nuclear plant, which is being dismantled in an arduous, 40-year effort.

Fukushima “hot zone” returnees – http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/JAPAN-FUKUSHIMA/0100401R03R/JAPAN-FUKUSHIMA.jpg

OLD FOLKS

More than three-quarters of those aged 29 or less do not intend to return, which means old people could form the bulk of the town’s population in a future largely devoid of children.

“Young people will not go back,” said Yasuo Fujita, a former Namie resident who runs a restaurant in Tokyo, the capital. “There will neither be jobs nor education for children.”

Fujita said he did not want to live near a possible storage site for contaminated soil, now being systematically removed.

Radiation levels at Namie town hall stood at 0.07 microsieverts per hour on Feb. 28, little different from the rest of Japan.

But in the nearby town of Tomioka, a dosimeter read 1.48 microsieverts an hour, nearly 30 times higher than in downtown Tokyo, underscoring lingering radiation hotspots.

For the towns’ evacuation orders to be lifted, radiation must fall below 20 millisieverts per year. They must also have functioning utilities and telecoms systems, besides basic health, elderly care and postal services.

HUNTING BOAR

Namie, which used to have six grade schools and three middle schools, plans to eventually open a joint elementary-junior high school. So children will need to commute to schools elsewhere initially.

A hospital opens later this month, staffed with one full-time and several part-time doctors.

Reconstruction efforts may create some jobs. The town’s mayor, Tamotsu Baba, hopes to draw research and robotics firms.

Prospects for business are not exactly bright in the short term, but lumber company president Munehiro Asada said he restarted his factory in the town to help drive its recovery.

“Sales barely reach a tenth of what they used to be,” he said. “But running the factory is my priority. If no one returns, the town will just disappear.”

Shoichiro Sakamoto, 69, has an unusual job: hunting wild boars encroaching on residential areas in nearby Tomioka. His 13-man squad catches the animals in a trap before finishing them off with air rifles.

“Wild boars in this town are not scared of people these days,” he said. “They stare squarely at us as if saying, ‘What in the world are you doing?’ It’s like our town has fallen under wild boars’ control.”

Some former Namie residents say the evacuation orders should remain until radiation levels recede and the dismantling of the ruined nuclear plant has advanced.

But it is now or never for his town, Mayor Baba believes.

“Six long years have passed. If the evacuation is prolonged further, people’s hearts will snap,” he said. “The town could go completely out of existence.”

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka, Teppei Kasai and Toru Hanai: Editing by Malcolm Foster and Clarence Fernandez)