David Usborne: Our Man In New York

Cheap tricks to get the British to visit Manhattan
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The Independent Online

Anna, my nephew's longtime girlfriend, flew into New York shortly before Christmas. A cellist, she had a gig at Sony headquarters on Madison Avenue which involved playing Bollywood movie tunes for south-east Asian bigwigs. It was her first time in America, and I was keen to show her around.

I knew she was only here for 48 hours, and that I was going to be out of town for half that time. On Friday evening, she called. With much background rustling - a lady from Sony was fitting her with a sari - we agreed to meet on Sunday morning for brunch before her flight home. On Saturday, she would be on her own. To be alone on Saturday suited her fine - she was in Manhattan; she needed time to shop.

Of course she did. NYC & Company, the outfit tasked with promoting tourism here, has been putting ads in London Tube stations exhorting riders to come to Manhattan because the place is so cheap.

I wonder how cheap they really find us. I mean, the city has a nerve to place those ads. Cheap is Buenos Aires or Havana, not here. Finding a bed for under $500 a night over the Christmas period in Manhattan was tougher than persuading a New Yorker to eat a mince pie. (Americans think mince pies are a kind of dastardly English trick; they expect a samosa, and instead bite into sweet goo.)

It's no accident that they chose London for their ads. It's the only city in the world that is actually more expensive than New York. Affordability is all relative. I grant you there is also the exchange rate, with pounds buying more dollars today than at any time in decades.

"Pound for pound, New York City is the place to be. Well, make that pound for dollar," read the posters, before exhorting Central Line passengers to visit a website, ncyopenbook.com, with additional tips on making the most of the "Big Apple" and the "City that Never Sleeps". Yes, all the clichés are there.

There's a 2007 calendar describing the best times to be in the city. The first three weeks of February are a must apparently, because that is the "President's Day Period". It is? Clearly, they are trying to lure the Brits into coming to New York when no one else wants to. February is nasty here, and for most Americans, President's Day, a one-day holiday, is synonymous with crass TV commercials from car dealerships desperate to shift last year's models. You don't want to miss that.

There are some priceless price comparisons on the website, too. Did you know, for instance, that "Smelling great in London costs £80?" If that's true, I'd hate to ride on a London bus. But wait, they are talking perfume. "How much is the same bottle in NYC? £40." A bagel and cream cheese is half the price in New York. Ticket to the Tower of London - £15. Ticket to the Empire State Building - £9. (Queue for Tower: 17 minutes. Line for Empire State: 17 hours and 52 minutes.)

Sorry to sound sour. By all means come to New York, even in February. It's just that those of us who live and work here are feeling a bit battered after the Christmas rush. It seemed like the crowds in midtown - a shuffling tide of humanity around Fifth Avenue, Times Square and the Rockefeller Center - were heavier than ever. We had foot-traffic jams for the first time last week, which meant waiting for the pedestrian light to go green twice or three times before you could actually cross an avenue.

Michael Bloomberg, our money-is-everything mayor, confirmed it on Wednesday. New York attracted 44 million tourists in 2006, well up from the year before. At this rate, he said, the city could expect 50 million by 2015. Lord save us. At what point will we be overloading this little island? If Manhattan ever disappears beneath the waves it won't be because of global warming but bedrock sinking.

So do come now, before Manhattan is the new Atlantis and while the dollar is in the dumps. But beware of those price-is-right ads. Assuming you are paying for the flight and your hotel, you are going to have to eat a whole lot of bagel and cream cheese for the trip to be a deal. Anna was set, of course, because Sony paid for both. My nephew is happy; all her big British pounds went on lingerie.