New York is welcoming back visitors with open arms after the US ended its 20-month Covid travel restrictions, but it will likely take several years before the number of tourists to the Big Apple reaches pre-pandemic levels.
The economic and cultural powerhouse of Manhattan is already feeling busier since the United States lifted its ban on "non-essential" travel on November 8, with Europeans among the early returnees.
Eglantine Lasserre, a 40-year-old from Bordeaux, was on the first flight to NYC out of France on Monday.
"New York has always been a dream of mine, so when I heard about the reopening of the borders I jumped at the opportunity," she told AFP beneath the giant electronic billboards of Times Square.
French couple Alexis Maynier, 33 and his wife Camille also decided to make their first trip to New York this week.
On a piercing blue-sky fall day, they enjoyed the freedom of meandering around Broadway, 5th Avenue and Central Park.
"We were under a lot of constraints and now we want to go back to more normal activities," said Maynier, referring to the nearly two years of various pandemic restrictions in France.
"We want to enjoy and not think too much about these concerns," he added.
The ban, first imposed by ex-president Donald Trump in March 2020, impacted foreign visitors from about 30 countries, including those in the European Schengen area, Britain, China, India and Russia.
Visitors can now travel to the US provided they are fully vaccinated, a landmark moment in New York's bid to recover economically from the pandemic.
The city welcomed almost 67 million tourists in 2019. They brought in $70 billion and more than 400,000 jobs, according to Chris Heywood, executive vice president of NYC & Company, the city's tourism board.
"Tourism is an economic engine of our city. It's really the lifeblood of this economy," he told AFP.
With 8.5 million foreign tourists expected to visit New York in 2022, he recognizes it is "going to take a few years for us to fully be back," in the global tourism competition against Paris, London and Rome.
- 'It feels good' -
"We're expecting by the end of 2024 to be back to the levels that we were in 2019," said Heywood.
The diverse metropolis of 8.5 million people spanning the five boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Staten Island has already come along way.
In spring 2020, the city was unrecognizable.
Manhattan's normally choked roads and sidewalks were deserted, resembling the science fiction movie "Vanilla Sky," as residents self-confined at home, only venturing out for essential food supplies.
Hospital and funeral services were overwhelmed by the crisis that has killed more than 34,000 New Yorkers.
Slowly the city has come back to life: Broadway is in full flow again and restaurants and bars are busy. Many workers have yet to return to offices though, leaving business districts still feeling quieter than before Covid-19.
New York requires proof of vaccination to enter museums, theatres, cinemas and restaurants, providing a sense of comfort for residents and visitors.
"We feel completely safe and we even tend to forget everything we've been through, and it feels good," said Lasserre.