NEW YORK — New York City's bedbugs have climbed out of bed and marched into landmarks like the Empire State Building, Lincoln Center and Bloomingdale's, causing tourists to cancel Big Apple vacations planned for the height of the holiday season.
Some travelers say they are creeped out about staying in hotels and visiting attractions as new reports of bedbugs seem to pop up every few days. And officials in Mayor Michael Bloomberg's administration are concerned about the effect on the city's image and $30 billion tourism industry.
The discoveries of the bloodsucking pests at high-profile places are often not full-blown infestations, or even in public areas. Bloomingdale's reported finding exactly one bug in the famous department store, while the Empire State Building had them in the basement and Lincoln Center's were in a dressing room.
But those reports, along with bedbug discoveries in movie theaters, hotels and clothing chain stores, are causing skittish travelers to call off trips planned months ago.
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Industry professionals — who have privately told city officials that they are nervous about bedbugs hurting New York's reputation — say publicly that they are not aware of any bedbug-related cancellations. But several would-be tourists tracked down by the Associated Press say they are canceling their trips because they fear the pests.
"It sounds like you can get them anywhere, any time of day and not know it until you get home," said Patty Majerik, from Baltimore.
She said she may not travel to Manhattan next month with her children, ages 7 and 10, like they do every year around the holidays to shop, catch a Broadway show and see the Radio City Christmas show.
"I've got four people traveling on a train, in cabs, going to stores and theaters, and they could be in any of these places? I hate to say it, but I doubt we're going to come this time," Majerik said.
Suzanne Baldwin said she is forfeiting money spent on reservations for a November trip to New York City from her home in Florida. She had already grown accustomed to checking hotel rooms for bedbugs — and has done so in New York before — but she is now overwhelmed at the idea that the bugs have spread beyond hotels.
"We thought long and hard about this trip," she told the AP in an e-mail. "However, we decided, knowing we would lose quite a bit of money from nonrefundable tickets, it was not worth the worry."
Susannah Johnston, a yoga teacher who lives in the New York City suburbs, said that she and her husband wanted to stay overnight in Manhattan last weekend after attending a late concert, but that bedbugs thwarted their plans.
"We started researching hotels and prices, and then we read the reviews," she said. "Every one of the hotels we were considering had a guest horror story regarding bedbugs."
Caught off guard
Bloomberg said Monday that he was concerned about the effect of bedbug hysteria on the city's reputation.
"You don't want anything that would dissuade people from coming here," he told reporters. "Hopefully these things come and go, and this will go quickly."
Sightings of the rust-colored bugs, about the size of an apple seed, have surged in New York and around the nation in recent years. Experts have theorized that an increase in global travel and the banning of certain pesticides may be partly responsible for their spread.
And then, exterminators were caught off guard when they began reappearing.
"It's gone up incredibly. We were completely blindsided by this," said Jody L. Gangloff-Kaufmann, urban entomologist in the integrated pest management program at Cornell University
City officials and experts say it is difficult to fully measure the problem, partly because of bedbug stigma and the lack of solid data.
The Bloomberg administration fielded 537 complaints in fiscal year 2004, while in 2009 there were nearly 11,000.
It isn't known how closely those complaints reflect the actual spread; not everyone with bedbugs calls to complain, and some calls could be based on fears instead of true cases, Gangloff-Kaufmann said. The most reliable data comes from a city survey that began only last year, she said.
For the first time, the city health department included a question about bedbugs on its annual community health survey. In 2009, it found that more than 6 percent of New Yorkers — one in 15 adults — said they had battled the pests in the past year. Until the AP reported those results this year, data had been limited to government statistics on bedbug complaints and private pest control company surveys.
Bedbugs are famously difficult to eradicate; they hide in many more places than beds and can go a year without feeding. Bloomberg recently joked on David Letterman's "Late Show" that bedbugs "are probably tougher" than New York City's notoriously hardy rats.
The city's tourism agency, NYC & Company, said it has not seen mass cancellations because of bedbug fears. But officials said some New York hotels, museums and other attractions that depend on tourists have told the administration they are concerned the bedbug rumors will scare travelers away.
Tourism officials are keeping an eye on the situation and are trying to decide how to address the public relations side of it.
The online travel site TripAdvisor, where travelers post reviews and ask questions of other tourists, said it has seen a 12 percent increase in New York City posts referencing bedbugs. The site compared the first eight months of 2010 with the same period the previous year.