Tourists take advantage of near-empty NYC tour buses

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All aboard the ghost town tour.

That was how a visiting couple took in the Big Apple on a recent frosty afternoon — the only two passengers of the once-popular hop-on, hop-off red buses.

“We have plenty of room,” joked Kevin Ortiz, 38, as he huddled with his girlfriend Noemi, amid empty seats on top of the open-air double-decker ride, which chugged around Manhattan’s all-but-abandoned streets and landmarks, giving them a private viewing.

There wasn’t even a tour guide to keep the pair company. Thanks to the pandemic, the buses now offer headsets for an audio-only option, but the Spanish-speaking couple, in town from Puerto Rico, didn’t bother to tune in.

The Ortizes, who live outside San Juan, were just happy to be in New York and didn’t seem to mind the lonely journey.

A group of four people from Delaware ride a Big Bus Tours bus. Tourism in the city has been diminished by Covid19 with only a total of six people riding the normally busy bus service.
A group from Delaware ride a Big Bus Tours bus through Manhattan.
Stephen Yang

“It’s OK,” said Ortiz.

Later, a family of four visitors hopped on, gawking as they passed the Empire State Building and Wall Street and getting an unexpected view from the lofty perch: near emptiness in certain neighborhoods.

“It’s like a ghost town, isn’t it?” said Lorena Ortega, 15, of Severna Park, Maryland, as the bus glided serenely down an almost traffic-free Fifth Avenue. “I kind of like it though. I’m not sure if it’ll be as fun to come back when it’s crowded again.”

Tourism in the city has been diminished by COVID-19 with only a total of six people riding the normally busy bus service.
Tourism in NYC has been diminished by COVID-19 with only a total of six people riding the normally busy bus service.
Stephen Yang

Ortega’s aunt, Vikki Jenkins, 44, who brought the teen and two other nieces to the city for just one night, said she had been to New York before but decided on the spur of the moment to make the trip with the girls.

“They’re going to think this is what New York is really like,” said Jenkins, laughing, as they took in the sites, pointing to buildings.

Downstairs, the driver was asked how things were going.

Kevin Ortiz, 26,  left, and
Naomi Augusto, 36, right, from Puerto Rico ride a largely empty Big Bus Tours bus.
Kevin Ortiz, 26, left, and Naomi Augusto, 36, right, of Puerto Rico, ride a largely empty Big Bus Tours bus.
Stephen Yang

“How do you think?” he growled, and requested he not be identified in print. “It’s supposedly heated down here but it gets pretty cold.”

The number of these once-ubiquitous buses has shrunk during the COVID crisis.

City Sightseeing has closed temporarily, forced to partner with competitors like Big Bus. But even Big Bus has trouble filling seats — though it points out that the buses are rarely packed in the winter months.

Mark, a Big Bus employee who was waiting for passengers for a final 4:30 p.m. trip around lower Manhattan, threw up his hands when it became clear no one was coming.

“Come back tomorrow morning,” he said. “We might get a couple for the 9:30.”

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