For foreign tourists, protest marches enhance New York experience

NEW YORK - Broadway, Central Park. Protest March: Foreign visitors to New York City this week had an unexpected but quintessentially American experience to add to their must-see lists.

Since Wednesday, tourists in the Big Apple were treated to a close-up look at the right to free speech in action as dozens of protests against police violence snaked through the streets, punctuated by brief "die-ins" at stores, highways and intersections.

"The fact that people are mobilizing is a great thing," said Amine Lazreg, a 24-year-old from Montreal who said he marched in a demonstration on Thursday.

"This type of protest is for social justice - I don't know anyone who would go against that." After three nights of demonstrations, many of the foreigners interviewed in bustling Times Square on Saturday said they were generally sympathetic to the protesters' cause.

Lazreg, who took refuge from the rainy weather in a busy coffee shop near the interaction where thousands stopped traffic on Thursday, said the protests highlight a racial divide in the United States that is often invisible from abroad.

Fadia Redovane, 24, who works in finance in Paris, agreed that many foreigners do not realise the extent of racial tensions in the United States. "I already knew there was racism and police abuse their power," said Redovane.

While thousands of protesters were storming Times Square, trying to crash the Rockefeller Center tree-lighting ceremony and blocking the Brooklyn Bridge, tourists were seen taking photos and some even joined the demonstrators.

Sabrina Chikh, a 19-year-old from Munich, Germany, watched the demonstrations on television. She said she was disheartened by the protests in a country that she had considered the world's most open-minded and racially diverse.

"When you hear that people of one race get killed for no reason, it is shocking," said Chikh, while taking shelter from the rain under an awning outside of a chain restaurant.

Tim Tompkins, head of the Times Square Alliance, which promotes area businesses, said tourism does not seem to be affected by the protests. He had not heard of any complaints about the demonstrations, which he said have fit into the often chaotic scene that unfolds in Times Square most days.

"It's just a place where those things happen," Tompkins said.

Some 54 million tourists visited New York City last year with about 20 per cent of those traveling internationally, according to tourism marketing group NYC & Company. December is one of the busiest tourism seasons for the city.