By Julie Shapiro
LOWER MANHATTAN — Even before news broke of Osama bin Laden's death, and months before the 9/11 memorial opens to the public, lower Manhattan has seen the number of tourists in the area almost double compared to last year.
In the first three months of 2011, the Downtown Alliance counted 875,000 tourists at major events and attractions below Chambers Street — a 45 percent increase compared to the same period in 2010.
"Lower Manhattan has something for everyone and the tourists know it," Downtown Alliance President Liz Berger said. "Tourism is a thriving business here in lower Manhattan. It has increased each year and we expect it to keep growing."
It's too soon to say how many people have come to Ground Zero and the surrounding areas in the wake of bin Laden's death, or how many more will come on Thursday in hopes of catching a glimpse of President Barack Obama when he visits the site.
Berger said tourists are an important part of lower Manhattan's economy, spurring the development of 12 hotels since 9/11 and supporting the neighborhood's 447 restaurants and 626 retailers.
The recent Downtown Alliance numbers also showed an influx of tourists visiting the Alliance's two information kiosks.
As of the middle of April, the Alliance's World Trade Center kiosk had seen nearly 40,000 more visitors so far this year compared to last year, Berger said. In the same period, the kiosk in the World Financial Center saw an additional 87,000 visitors this year, nearly twice as many as last year.
Jennifer Adams, CEO of the Tribute WTC Visitor Center, has also noticed an increase. The Tribute Center saw 44,700 visitors this March, 15 percent more than last year and their best March on record. The April numbers look similar, Adams said.
"I think some of it is the 10th anniversary — a lot of people are asking about the memorial and when it will open," Adams said. "But it's also the economy coming back."
The influx of tourists has been a boon for neighborhood business, especially companies that offer tours.
Myron Baer, chief operating officer of the tour company Uncle Sam's New York, is regularly selling out his downtown tours, especially "Heroes of the World Trade Center," which focuses on 9/11.
"Rain, shine, people don't care — they want to do the tour," Baer said. "It went from being our lowest tour to our highest almost overnight."
Local residents and workers, though, aren't always thrilled to share their sidewalks with throngs of out-of-towners.
"It's very, very crowded on the streets right now," said Mary Perillo, who has lived across from the World Trade Center for 28 years. "I feel like I'm tripping over people."
Perillo worries that the congestion will get even worse when the 9/11 memorial opens this fall, drawing millions of additional tourists and hundreds of buses to lower Manhattan.
Rob Kressler, 39, a consultant working at World Trade Center Tower 4, said he already has to dodge tourists who aren't paying attention to where they're going.
"My biggest complaint is that everyone is always looking up," Kressler said. "They tend to bump into things and almost get hit by cars. There's a lot of picture-taking — I've gotten used to ducking a lot."
Still, Kressler said he was glad to have the tourists bringing money into the neighborhood.
Kevin Tracy, 53, an ironworker at One World Trade Center, said he'd rather see too many people downtown than too few.
"At least it's alive down here," Tracy said. "I think it's great."
One of the biggest defenders of the tourists is Clive Burrow, chairman of the Lower Manhattan Marketing Association, who said it's important for New Yorkers to remember the opportunities visitors bring.
"The growth of tourists in this town enables us to have thousands of restaurants, hundreds of theaters and dozens of museums that we couldn't otherwise afford to have," Burrow said. "When people say they hate tourists, the other side of the quality-of-life coin is those benefits."