New York City's bedbugs have climbed out of bed and marched into landmarks like the Empire State Building, Bloomingdale's and Lincoln Center, causing fresh anxiety among tourists who are cancelling vacations planned for the height of the holiday season.
Some travellers who had arranged trips to New York say they are worried 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 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, 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 theatres, hotels and clothing chain stores, are causing skittish travellers to call off trips planned months ago.
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 aborting their trips here because they fear the bloodsucking 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, as 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 travelling on a train, in cabs, going to stores and theatres, 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 email. "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 she and her husband wanted to stay overnight in Manhattan last weekend after attending a late concert, but 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."
Sightings of the rust-coloured bugs, which are about the size of an apple seed, have surged in New York and around the United States in recent years. It is not known what caused their sudden spread, but experts have theorized that an increase in global travel and the banning of certain pesticides may be partly responsible.
Bedbugs are famously difficult to eradicate; they hide in many more places than beds and can go for 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 rumours will scare travellers away.
Tourism officials are keeping an eye on the situation, and are trying to decide how to address the public relations side of it.
New Yorkers themselves are feeling more anxious about regular activities like shopping, seeing movies and even just going to work, as bedbug reports have spread to office buildings and schools.
"I have definitely had people talking about it more, checking more for signs of bedbugs — it's on people's minds and changing the way they live their lives," said Lisa Tischler, a Manhattan psychologist who treats anxiety disorders. "People are really taking it seriously, and there are people who are out of control about it."
The online travel site TripAdvisor, where travellers post reviews and ask questions of other tourists, said it has seen a 12 per cent increase in New York City posts referencing bedbugs. The site compared the first eight months of 2010 with the same period the previous year.
City officials and experts say it is difficult to fully measure the extent of the problem, partly because of bedbug stigma and the lack of solid data about confirmed infestations.
For the first time, the city health department included a question about bedbugs on its annual community health survey. In 2009, it found, more than six per cent of New Yorkers — one in 15 adults — said they had battled the pests in the past year. Until The AP reported those results earlier this year, data had been limited to government statistics on bedbug complaints and private pest control company surveys.