He loves New York: A conversation with Ross Levi, the state’s top tourism executive – Travel 2023

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Ross Levi makes a new friend at the Aquarium of Niagara
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TRAVEL 2023 – As summer approaches, people both inside and outside of New York are looking to get out of their homes and explore the Empire State. Ross Levi, the executive director of tourism at Empire State Development, spoke to us to share news of new venues and events coming to the state this year — including some often missed locations that are must-see spots.

Question: How has the tourism industry rebounded since the COVID-19 pandemic?

Answer: We’re somewhere in the range of 15% less visitation than in 2019, but we’re up over 36% from 2020. I should note that it’s not the same story in every region of the state. Some areas in the state are actually doing the best business they’ve ever done — even higher levels than before the pandemic. And then there are other areas that are slower coming back, most notably New York City with both local and international travel, but they are seeing strong improvement, as well.

The overall story: Not back to where we were prepandemic, but definitely strong growth and heading in the right direction. Tourism is still a powerhouse when it comes to New York’s economy. We are the state’s third-largest industry, responsible for one in 10 jobs, and $85.5 billion in economic impact in 2021. Tourism saves every household in New York state over $1,000 in state and local taxes that it would otherwise pay if there weren’t if there wasn’t tourism in New York state.

Q: You mentioned some regions are doing very well compared with New York City. Which regions have seen the strongest return of the tourism industry?

A: I certainly know that some of what we saw during COVID [was people] getting outdoors, getting to nearby places that you don’t have to get on a plane for. That benefited places like the Adirondacks, which has great business, and Niagara Falls. So there’s a number of regions in the state that have benefited from some of the trends we started to see as a result of COVID, that to some degree have held.

Q: That moves into my next question. We’ve certainly seen a lot of investment from the state in outdoor activities, for example expanding hiking trails. How is that a reflection of people’s interests?
A: Yes. Outdoor recreation has always been a popular activity for people as part of their vacation experience, but COVID has only amplified that. For some people, it gave them the opportunity to do things that they had never done, hadn’t done in a while or had meant to do. For example, we anecdotally heard stories of families that either went camping for the first time, or parents taking their kids for the first time where they went camping when they were kids. And on their way out from a campground they were already booking their spot for the next year, recognizing what a great time they had and how much they loved it. And so we know that outdoor recreation remains important. Like I said, COVID gave people a chance to sort of discover that all over.

Q: Are there any new tourism attractions coming to New York this summer?
A: Yes, lots and lots of new and expanded attractions in New York state. In Rochester, the Strong National Museum of Play is the only museum in the United States dedicated to the exploration of play, which includes not only their new Neighborhood of Play but also a butterfly-themed garden, a brewery and a game-themed restaurant. They’ve also got a brand-new expansion that’s opening up: the World Video Game Hall of Fame, which will include all kinds of interactive exhibits, including the world’s largest playable Donkey Kong arcade machines, which is pretty cool.

Over in the Buffalo-Niagara region, what was formerly known as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery has been expanded — the largest expansion in the museum’s history. It’s called the Buffalo AKG Art Museum. It’s a new public green space. Probably even more importantly than that, just their amazing collection of art, which includes all the great masters you would expect, now have more space and they’re going to be able to show more of their collection.

Just a week or so ago I was at the opening of the new Richard Gilder Center for Science at the American Museum of Natural History, which is this new critically acclaimed wing that just has this really amazing new kind of architecture. Within the museum is a live insectarium with this amazing exhibit of leafcutter ants, one million of them working, cutting the leaves in this tropical environment that has butterflies floating about you.

There are also some new events happening in New York state this year. The Syracuse Jazz Festival is expanding to five days from June 21 to June 25, and they are being headlined by Gladys Knight and Herbie Hancock.

I also want to point out in the Capital Region a couple of new things. Through November at the Saratoga Automobile Museum is an official collection of iconic James Bond vehicles. It’s an exhibit called “Bonds in Motion.” It’s a multimedia exhibition that includes not only the cars but props and clips from all 25 James Bond films, and they’ll lead tours to take people through that. There’s also new “glamping” [or glamour camping] experiences here in the Capital Region. Over in Broadalbin there’s a site called Glampful. It has eight safari-style tents on their 50-acre site, which also includes hiking through wetlands, forests and meadows, and is also very close to Great Sacandaga Lake. There’s more, but that’s a quick overview.

Q: You had me at Gladys Knight! What are some of your favorite summer activities?

A: I like a lot of things. I certainly love arts and culture, so I love museums and performing-arts venues. I do love the outdoors. I tend to like more low-adventure or medium-adventure activities than the high-adventure ones. For example, I prefer a nature trail over something like rock climbing. And I also like the off-the-beaten-track things like Americana and the Strong Museum I had mentioned, and the National Comedy Center in Western New York. It has a history of comedy across time and it’s all there in Jamestown, New York — Lucille Ball’s hometown. The American Museum of Moving Images in New York City in Queens — which not a lot of people know is there, partially because it’s in an outer borough — but that’s one of the best collections of movie memorabilia in the world, including Jim Henson’s collection, and his archives are housed there. I mean there are so many of these lesser-known attractions across New York state. One of my favorite things to do is to highlight those to people. We have two of the three most popular state parks in the United States, according to reviews in USA Today. Number one is Letchworth State Park and Watkins Glen State Park in the Finger Lakes. I love both of those. Those are pretty amazing.

Not a lot of people know that just a few hours away from the Capital Region there are castles on islands just waiting to be explored in the middle of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Thousand Islands region. It’s a really great experience to take a boat ride. There are a number of companies that will take you out on tour boats and take you to those castles, and also up and down what they call “Millionaire’s Row” and some of the houses that are there now. Hours away up in the Adirondacks, the Wild Center is an indoor/outdoor museum of nature and it gives you the experience of what it is like to be wildlife, including something called the Wild Walk, which is an elevated walkway over the treetops that’s pretty spectacular with great views.

Speaking of great views, just an hour and a half south of us is the walkway over the Hudson, which is the longest pedestrian bridge in the world. So, a mile long and about 30 stories over the Hudson River. Spectacular views and on a clear day you can see New York City. Closer to home, I’m a big fan of the Indian Ladder Trail over at Thacher State Park. It’s this really great trail for whatever your hiking level is, with these spectacular views. This unique trail along the ledge of the area there, and it gives you great views particularly in the fall. I love it in the fall.

Obviously, at the end of the day it’s up to individual travelers to find what they’re going to love in New York state. We work pretty hard to let people know what’s available to them and provide tools to make it easy for them to plan their next trip.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add for potential travelers?

A: It’s good for folks to remember that for an affordable destination, New York can be perfect for individuals or families looking for vacations. Whether that’s our unparalleled state parks, the new Empire State Trail, which is the longest multi-use trail in the United States where people could hike or bike if they wanted to from New York City to Canada or from Albany to Buffalo. They probably don’t want to do all that, so they can certainly do sections. The Erie Canal, whether that’s getting on that with tour boats, kayaking or walking along it along the trail. Camping, festivals, museums and cultural institutions, some of which are either free or have pay-as-you-wish days. In addition to being one of the most amazing states that anyone would want to vacation in, you can also do it with an eye on savings as well.

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Categories: Life and Arts, Life and Arts, Travel 2023

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