International tourists on flights to US welcomed back to NYC for 1st time in 20 months

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NEW YORK CITY (WABC) -- New York City and the U.S. marked a monumental moment in the nation's recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic Monday with the return of international tourists.

JFK Airport led the nation's welcome party with the first flights, and there were emotional moments as families are reunited for the first time in 20 months.

"I've been waiting for this moment for a long time," said Alex Yip, who along with his brother Frank embraced their mother after her Cathay Pacific Flight from Hong Kong.

"She was very happy, and she was so excited to see our family reunion," Alex Yip said.

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Frank's 2-year-old daughter went to China to be with her grandmother right before the pandemic, and she hasn't been home to New York since.

On Monday, she met her baby sister for the first time.

"I didn't expect her to stay there for so long, so right now, she's all grown up," Frank Yip said.

The flight from China was one of the first to arrive at JFK, free from the travel ban Former President Trump enacted in March 2020. It affected most of Europe, China, Brazil, and the UK.

"I haven't seen my sister in two years," said Louise Erebara, of Danbury. "My children have not seen their aunt in two years, and I haven't seen my brother in law. It's just indescribable."

Erebara was reunited with her sister Jill Chambers -- who saw her niece and nephew for the first time in exactly 730 days.

"She was a little girl when I last saw her," Chambers said. "And she's a big girl, an adult now."

Fully vaccinated international tourists can now visit the U.S. with a negative COVID test, like Vanessa Turner's mom, just off a flight from Sao Paulo, Brazil.

"My mother is vaccinated, Visa holder for many years, and today we're able to bring her in," Turner said. "So it's a great feeling. We were really hoping this would happen."

Two rival airlines took off from London's Heathrow Airport simultaneously, as both Virgin Atlantic and British Airways flights headed to Kennedy Airport.

For British Airways, it's the return of their most profitable route, London to New York.

"We keep outlining the economic impact of staying closed and the human impact, so there is a lot of people who haven't been able to visit family in the U.S.," British Airways CEO Sean Doyle said. "They haven't been able to reunite. You know, both countries have huge amounts of foreign direct investment going both ways, and that's going to be impacted by this impasse."

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Phil Drummond was on one of those London flights and couldn't wait to see his sister Bobbie Fernando and her son, Ben, from Staten Island.

"It feels strange, you know?" Feranado said. "We talk on Zoom all the time, so it feels like I only saw him yesterday. And then it also feels like it's been years, you know? It's been far too long. I've never gone this long without seeing my family before. I've lived here for a long time, but I've never gone this long."

It's also the final piece of the puzzle for New York City's struggling tourism industry. Hotels, restaurants, and Broadway shows are all heavily dependent on international tourists.

Experts predict the city's tourism industry won't fully recover until 2025.

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