Three years after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on New York's World Trade Center claimed nearly 3,000 lives, visitors from around the world have turned Ground Zero into an international landmark.
Aside from the gaping hole in the ground, there is not much to see at the site where 2,792 people died in the attacks on the Twin Towers. A new office building is rising and a new transportation hub is open. But work has not yet begun on a memorial to the victims and on the Freedom Tower, which will replace the two soaring skyscrapers.
Still, visitors come in droves. Some take photographs or shoot videos. Others read the panels that recount the events of September 11. Many just quietly stand and stare.
Nancy Vila is a 25-year-old supermarket worker from Amsterdam, Holland. Like many tourists here, she shuffles back and forth along the massive four-meter-high chain link fence surrounding the site. She says she is trying to absorb the sheer magnitude of the imprint left by the fallen towers and surrounding buildings felled in the attack. "We are in New York for a holiday, and we wanted to see this because we have known about it since Day One. We saw it on the news, but if you see the pictures on the TV you cannot believe that something like that happened. You want to see that," she says.
Nancy Vila says she included Ground Zero on her list of must-see New York sights, along with the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Central Park and the famous department stores, Macy's and Bloomingdales'. "Formerly it was of course the Twin Towers, and now it is Ground Zero. That has not changed. It is still a sightseeing thing, as bad as it sounds," she says.
Many New Yorkers bristle at the notion that the site where the Twin Towers once stood has become a major tourist attraction. But city tourism officials acknowledge that pilgrimages to the site in lower Manhattan have become a regular part of New York City tourism.
Christyne Nicholas, who heads the city's tourism bureau, NYC and Company, says people naturally gravitate to the heart of the nation's tragedy. "We really are not surprised at the level of interest, and part of it is really a healing process. We are not marketing that, we feel that would be distasteful. There are not any tours that say 'Ground Zero'. But we also are not discouraging people from going because we know that they have to heal as well," she says.
There are no statistics on how many people have visited the site, but estimates from the New York Port Authority, which owns the site, put the figure at between five and eight million.
Shirley Jaffe is in charge of economic development for the Alliance for Downtown New York, a business development group. She says a visit to the former site of the World Trade Center has become part of every tourist's itinerary. "Ground Zero is a must-see stop. Nobody comes to New York and doesn't go down to Ground Zero, whether they are foreign visitors or domestic visitors. Visitation is a fact of life there. Right now there is really no there there. They walk around, they look as tourists do as in many other sacred and sad places, and they take photos. There's a sense when the museum and memorial are built, there will be a focus and there will be a place for visitors to actually go," she says.
Sonia Sumant is from Poona, on the West Coast of India. She says she felt a need to see the site for herself. "I was really curious about what really happened, how big was the whole thing, and what exactly happened. I wanted to feel what it was really, and just see the destruction that took place here. It was totally unimaginable," she says.
NYC and Company's Chrystine Nicholas agrees that the scale of the tragedy is hard to grasp - until you arrive at Ground Zero. "It is very important for people to see the size of the devastation. People think that the World Trade Center site is a small little area in lower Manhattan. [Six-point-five hectares] is a huge area, and if you go there first-hand and witness and see what happened, you won't forget. You have to see it in person to take it all in. The greatest tragedy would be forgetting," she says.
In the months after the attacks, demand from visitors was so intense that the city built viewing platforms and distributed millions of free entrance passes. The platforms are now closed, and visitors can walk around most of the perimeter of the site.
Construction crews have already have begun preparing the site for the new 541-meter-tall Freedom Tower. The building will be topped by an 84-meter spire, and will include 60 storeys of office space, 10 stories of retail space, an observation deck and energy-generating windmills.