The panel on tourism was an all-star lineup of local entrepreneurs — a restaurateur, a museum director, a hotel executive, the founder of a weekend markets and a theater impresario.
But the celebrity of the event, part of an economic development conference in Long Island City, Queens, was the one panelist without a neighborhood portfolio: an advertising executive from Lonely Planet, the travel guide publisher. The others genuflected.
“He should’ve been carried into the room,” Joshua Schneps, founder of the LIC Flea & Food and a community newspaper publisher, told the audience.
Lonely Planet made a decision in December that stunned many in the travel industry, even those deeply invested in promoting the borough. It named Queens the No. 1 travel destination in the United States for 2015.
Yes, Queens. Not Miami, the Grand Canyon, Washington, San Francisco or, more to the point, Manhattan, but rather New York City’s equivalent of a flyover state, perhaps most famous for two sitcoms, one featuring a food-fixated deliveryman and the other a xenophobic bigot.
The designation has buoyed the borough’s promoters, who say it reaffirms their belief that Queens deserves to be — and is finally becoming — a significant tourist destination in its own right, not just a doormat for air travelers bound for Manhattan or, perhaps more vexing for Queens loyalists, Brooklyn.
“We’re on the verge of crossing the Rubicon and instead of being a joke, with Archie Bunker and aluminum siding, we’re actually becoming a fascinating place to visit,” said Rob MacKay, director of public relations, marketing and tourism for the Queens Economic Development Corporation. “It’s a place that people are happy to explore.”
The available data, though sparse, suggests that Mr. MacKay may have a point.
The number of visitors to Queens increased about 12 percent between 2012 and 2013, according to the most recently available data from NYC & Company, the city’s tourism marketing agency. The increase over the same period was 8 percent in Brooklyn and 4 percent in Manhattan. The Bronx and Staten Island saw larger increases than Queens, but the numbers of visitors are still far below the other boroughs.
Queens enthusiasts promote the array of cultural institutions, from the artistic enclave of Long Island City (including P.S. 1, SculptureCenter and the Noguchi Museum) to the Queens Museum, the Queens Zoo and the New York Hall of Science. For sports fans, the New York Mets play at Citi Field, where attendance has risen this year with the team’s performance, and the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center hosts the U.S. Open, where attendance has topped 700,000 in seven of the past eight years.
The borough is also in the midst of a major hotel building boom. Five new hotels opened there last year, compared with one in Brooklyn, according to NYC & Company. (Manhattan, which has a far larger hotel industry than the other boroughs, had 17 openings.)
In addition, there are 47 hotels in Queens in some stage of planning or construction, compared with 32 in Brooklyn, according to STR, a leading hotel research company.
Many attractions have also reported significant growth in the number of visitors, such as the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona, where increases in recent years have ranged between 12 and 18 percent; and P.S. 1, the Museum of Modern Art’s satellite in Long Island City, which had a 52 percent increase between fiscal years 2012 and 2014.
According to NYC & Company, an estimated 54.3 million people visited New York City in 2013, and of those, 12.4 million visited Queens. (The agency counts a visitor to New York City as anyone who has traveled from at least 50 miles from Columbus Circle or spends the night.)
Still, even those whose job it is to sell Queens to the world sometimes appear skeptical of others’ enthusiasm for the borough, as if they are bracing for the stinging punch line of a joke.
Mr. MacKay told of a recent conversation he had with a French journalist who was keen to tour Queens.
“She said, ‘I’m so excited to see Long Island City. Everybody in Paris is talking about Long Island City.’ And I said, ‘Really?’ ” Mr. MacKay recalled. “She said, ‘Can you take me to Sweetleaf?,’ ” referring to a popular cafe in Long Island City. “I said, ‘Sweetleaf?’ She said, ‘Yes! Everybody in Paris is talking about Sweetleaf!’ ”
Disbelieving boosters can be forgiven for their wariness. Until recently, Queens, as far as most of the international tourism industry was concerned, was a place where tourists wound up only if they got on the wrong subway in Manhattan.
For years, efforts to promote tourism in the borough were piecemeal and anemic at best, business leaders contend. In 2012, Jack Friedman, the former executive director of the Queens Chamber of Commerce who died this year, accused NYC & Company of giving Queens short shrift. The agency, he said, “takes credit for the steep increase in tourism to our great city, and from a Manhattan perspective much of that credit is deserved,” he wrote in an opinion column in The Daily News. “The only problem is, when it comes to Queens, their efforts are nonexistent.”
NYC & Company officials insist they have always promoted all five boroughs. But in the past few years promotional efforts — private and public — have expanded as new hotels and attractions have opened and existing businesses have elevated their profiles.
“The development of hotels and attractions over the last few years has made it easier to market Queens to tourists,” Dena Libner, director of communications for NYC & Company, said.
As part of its multipronged strategy to promote Queens, the agency disseminates information about the borough on its website and social media, at trade shows and through its representatives around the world. It also underwrites visits to New York for journalists and travel professionals from abroad and encourages them to spend at least a day touring the borough, outings that are often led by Mr. MacKay.
Queens promoters do not even pretend that they will ever be able to contest Manhattan’s near-monopoly of New York City tourism. Instead, they hope to slice off a bit of it, encouraging tourists, especially those visiting the city for more than a few days, to spend at least part of a day in the borough.
“The real competition is time,” said Fred Dixon, president and chief executive of NYC & Company. “We know that the more they visit, the more they explore.”
Jennifer and Brian Walker, who were visiting the Louis Armstrong House Museum last week, were a case in point. Residents of Dallas, they were at the end of a weeklong trip to the New York region with their two children, and, Ms. Walker said, “were trying to kill time” before their afternoon flight.
They took a tour of the museum and were planning to visit downtown Flushing. It was the latest of several trips to New York but their first time in Queens. They had spent the rest of their vacation exploring Westchester County and the Bronx. “We didn’t even go to Manhattan this time,” Ms. Walker said.
“It’s nice to take a look at what’s outside” Manhattan, Mr. Walker added. “Then you get a taste of real New York, how everybody lives.”
Among Queens’s biggest selling points, boosters say, is its ethnic diversity: With about half the population foreign-born, it is a polyglot potpourri. (In 2014, after she became borough president, Melinda Katz rebranded Queens “The World’s Borough,” emblazoning the phrase on highway signs.)
But the hindrances are equally apparent, including the inadequate reach of public transportation and, for vast stretches, mundane architecture. Ever the realist, Mr. MacKay does not pretend these aspects do not exist.
“Large swaths of Queens have really bad aluminum siding,” he said matter-of-factly. “Did you ever see that Woody Allen movie where he goes to hell and they say, ‘What are you here for?’ And he says, ‘I invented aluminum siding’?”
But boosters say those negative characteristics should not be impediments — and may actually be advantages — to those travelers seeking adventure and authenticity, including foodies seeking diverse culinary experiences.
“Queens, New York’s largest borough, is also quickly becoming its hippest, but most travelers haven’t clued in …yet,” the travel guide company wrote in its endorsement of the borough as the top destination for 2015. “With microbreweries springing up, new boutique hotels, a reinvented seaside at Rockaway, a world-class art scene and a truly global food culture, 2015 is the year to try Queens.”
José Barreiro, the Lonely Planet advertising executive who participated in the tourism panel in Long Island City, told the audience that the company is “trying to get ahead of those places that are hip and cool” and identify destinations that “are untouched by tourists.” (Brooklyn received a similar imprimatur from the guidebook company in 2007.)
On a recent morning, Mr. MacKay was escorting Margo Schachter, an Italian journalist, on a tour of Queens.
She marveled at the multiethnic street life around her. “So interesting,” she said. “We don’t have these mixed communities so much.
“It’s not Times Square,” she continued. “You go there once in your life and you say, ‘Enough.’ It’s not Guggenheim, Central Park. That’s wonderful, but enough.”
Queens boosters like to point to the dramatic growth in the Queens hotel market as an indication of the growing appeal of the borough as a destination. Some of the development is clustered in Flushing and geared toward business and family travelers connected to the Chinese population there. Other projects are tied to Kennedy International and La Guardia Airports.
But a particularly large cluster of hotel projects is in Long Island City. Those hoteliers trumpet their lower room rates compared with those in Manhattan, which is only a short subway or taxi ride away.
“I think in general we’re happy to ride Manhattan’s coattails because they’re long and they are big,” Mr. MacKay acknowledged.
Those coattails, though, can also be blinders.
One afternoon last week, Fanta Sidibe, 23, and her friend, Malika Arezki, 24, tourists from Paris, were snapping photos of each other in Times Square. They had been staying at Ms. Sidibe’s relatives’ home in the Bronx and had also been to Brooklyn, but had mainly spent their trip in Manhattan — shopping and visiting a few sites, including the National September 11 Memorial Museum and Ellis Island.
Had they heard of Queens? “Yes,” Ms. Sidibe replied emphatically. But then her certainty quickly turned to doubt. She looked to Ms. Arezki for guidance; Ms. Arezki’s face was blank.
“Queens — the people?” Ms. Sidibe asked.
No, the borough.
Ms. Sidibe seemed even more confused. “Where is Queens?”