By Roselle Chen
NEW YORK (Reuters) - The holiday season promises peak travel cheer in New York, with more visitors on the streets and in stores, but the emergence of the heavily mutated Omicron coronavirus variant threatens to throw a wrench into the tourism industry's recovery.
"Just when you think you got the answer, it seems like this virus is constantly changing the question," said Mark Williams, a New York operator at Big Bus Tours, one of the world's largest open-top sightseeing tour bus companies.
Travel website Kayak said searches related to international travel to New York have spiked 50% since the COVID-19 travel restrictions for fully vaccinated international visitors were lifted on Nov. 8.
"There is definitely a lot of pent-up demand for people wanting to get to New York City," said Kayak CEO Steve Hafner.
Hafner admitted the Omicron variant was a wild card, but he was confident in the allure of New York, and that travellers were starting to learn how to live with COVID-19.
"People are very resilient, and that's what we've seen in the numbers. So as soon as the government lets them do stuff, they're going to go out there and get it done, and there's no better place to do it than New York City," he said.
Travellers on the Big Bus Tour appeared to agree.
"They say it's not as bad as they thought it was," said Kevin Norman, visiting from Britain, referring to Omicron. "More worrying is that we have to take more tests to go back to the UK."
"I'm fully vaccinated. So what will be, will be," said another British tourist, Ann Heinz.
Tom Harris, president of the Times Square Alliance which works to improve and promote the famous intersection, has seen pedestrian numbers rise significantly since Nov. 8, to more than 250,000 people a day from 30,000 at the beginning of the pandemic.
Harris expects a return to pre-pandemic numbers of 365,000 people sooner than expected, but decries any notion of normalcy.
"Normal is boring," Harris said. "Times Square is anything but boring. We're not going to fall back. We're going to fall forward. We're going to learn from the pandemic and we're going to create a new and exciting Times Square post-pandemic."
(Reporting by Roselle Chen; Editing by Karishma Singh and Gerry Doyle)